Mind Your Language!
For many years now French has been the dominant modern foreign language taught in schools, but the debate about its position relative to other languages has intensified. If schools were to start with a blank canvas, free from educational legacy, which language would children learn? Would it be European or non-European, should the status quo be maintained, and if not, what are the alternatives?
While British people sadly have a reputation for a reluctance to speak foreign languages, French has historically been the one that most of us can at least say a few words in, thanks to having studied it at school. England and France are divided by a relatively narrow stretch of water and France remains a hugely desirable destination for holidays. France has always been popular and convenient for pupil exchange programmes and the Channel Tunnel has made the journey even easier. For most, France has a lot to offer and the British have felt a long attachment to the language and lifestyle.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Anglo-Norman French became the language of the nobility, judiciary and academics, and was used for literary and government purposes between the 12th and 15th centuries. Official documents tended to be written either in Latin, the language of the church, or in French. A desire to learn French spread through other social classes and 14th century manuscripts containing materials for instructing non-native speakers still exist today. One can see that the English enthusiasm for French and French textbooks have a long and distinguished history.
Jumping forward on the linguistic time machine, French became a colonial language and was important in the founding and subsequent development of the United Nations, the Olympic movement and the European Union. In 1896 Baron de Coubertin made French the official language of the modern Olympic Games, and within the European political arena French has become a language of diplomacy alongside English. Significantly, France, along with Germany, has maintained its position as senior partner and strategist in the EU, and for a monolingual country like England, many were impressed (and probably relieved) to hear both a former PM and the current Deputy PM speaking French while on state business. Yet, given its heritage and significance, French has waned in popularity, especially at GCSE, and calls for Spanish and Chinese have grown. Why is this, especially given the common view that a solid grasp of French helps pupils to go on and learn other languages?
Firstly, the 2004 Labour Government decision that made languages optional in schools. This was heavily criticised by the NUT, which stated that "the policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable, leaving young people ill-equipped for life in a global society”. Secondly, the perception that French is relatively difficult to pass at a high grade. Thirdly, the way French is taught in some schools, leaving some pupils unable to converse even after several years of study, and fourthly, increasing demand for other languages, including Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Arabic, Cantonese, German and Spanish.
But while English may be described as the world's business language, circa 130 million people speak French around the world and it is an official language in 32 countries. However, approximately 400 million speak Spanish and over 1 billion speak Mandarin, the latter being the most widely spoken language on the planet. As Latin America and China become even more important in the world economy, people will understandably want to learn these languages as well or instead. Even David Cameron recently went on record saying, "By the time the children born today leave school, China is set to be the world's largest economy, so it's time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin." Furthermore, the business prospects for many of those 32 French speaking countries appear limited.
If French is to remain as the dominant language, then that’s fine, so long as the rationale is convincing and current. Reasons such as: that’s what most of our feeder schools teach, there are a lot of French teachers available, schools have already invested heavily in (costly) resources, or that’s because we’ve always done it that way, are simply not good enough on their own to justify continuing with the status quo. Of course, we (Solihull School) are very well equipped to teach French and enjoy super teaching and much success at GCSE and A Level, but Spanish and German are also thriving and French is no longer the compulsory modern foreign language here. French now has parity with other modern foreign languages at GCSE and we are very lucky to be able to offer our pupils three languages, as well as Latin from age 11 and a little Chinese and Italian on the Sixth Form Enrichment Carousel.
But what does the future hold for Solihull School? The essence of the debate is rationale for learning one specific language over another. French has its place for a number of valid and justifiable reasons, but aren’t those same arguments for, let’s say, Spanish every bit as true, if not more so? Other than creating a generation of polyglots, which didn’t happen even when GCSE languages were compulsory, it is timely to have a discussion about which languages we offer and when and why we offer them. In my opinion, one thing is certain - because the infrastructures in the maintained and independent sectors strongly favour French, subtle turns of an institutional juggernaut will have little or no impact. What may well work, on a local level, is to contemplate doing it differently from the bottom up so that we look ahead to a time when our pupils leave school more ready than ever to thrive in an ever changing, globalised way of life.