Monday, 12 December 2011

Will They Listen?

Back in the 50s many Scottish primary school pupils were introduced to the French language. That included me.  We were taught French grammar (no conversation in those days) by rote and because the subject continued into the 'big' school, it's very possible that a number of today's 65+ year olds who experienced a Dundee state school education, can still disgorge the tenses of  popular French verbs.  French was the language chosen by those 'in authority'.  Perhaps it was because Scotland had what was thought to be a special relationship with France, through the 'Auld Alliance', but no other language other than Latin - which I found was most exotic and on occasion still study -  was offered until after the third year of senior school.

My parents decided to move to the Borders when I was 15 when I was beginning to specialise in various subjects for my highers. The school was very much smaller than my city equivalent and struggled to meet the subjects I'd developed.  My parents insisted my music studies would not be disrupted (that's another post) and I was desperate to drop French because it held no interest for me.

I expressed an interested in learning a language other than French. At the time those connected with my itinerary must have thought I had very definite views but they would have been wrong. My interest in learning another foreign language came from my brother.  We've never been competitive to any degree but I idolised him and because he'd been recently 'crowned' as the youngest member of the Institute of British Linguists, I wanted to be part of his success.  In fact I wanted to show him that even though I hadn't attended Sorbonne  - he worked his way there - I could still succeed in speaking another language with some competence. Strangely I didn't want more French even though my brother's qualifications are in French, Russian and Mandarin. If you're interested he also speaks quite good Spanish, Swedish and nonsense! That doesn't make him a linguist in my eyes.  He's a far better jazz musician and although well into his 70s now, he still trundles his band round the haunts of Vancouver as he blows his heart out on his saxaphone.

When my Peebles school suggested I try a German class little did I realise such a small decision, caused not by an effort to accommodate my desire but more to fit me into the school timetable, would be so important in my adult life. Not only was my German teacher inspiring but her German assistant clinched the 'deal'. Her enthusiasm and delight with Scottish culture and the comparisons with her own culture, required her pupils to want to visit Germany.  As far as I know quite a few of us did, although I know of only one who lived there - me. In fact I had many happy years there.

A long time ago Scottish education binned teaching a foreign language in primary and recently only a few councils have continued to employ foreign language students in secondary schools. A neighbour used to provide accommodation to these young people - who were usually French - but about 10 years ago she was told the local secondary school would no longer be using the services of a French speaking student. Thus, with the sweep of a pen, a valuable tool for pupils was dumped in Perth and Kinross council as well as most others. Such short sightedness.

Suddenly the Scottish government has woken up to the fact that other countries are concerned about the cuts in the numbers of foreign language assistants in Scottish schools.  Where have our politicians been for the past 20 years?  Too busy ensuring classes about climate change, sex education, various religions and other issues, not relevant to their future employment opportunities, take precedence?

The Scottish government is urgently seeking talks with the diplomats of various countries with regard to foreign language assistants now that they have expressed their concerns that their has been an 80% fall over the past few years.

Our foreign language assistants cost little but do so much, just as British students do in foreign schools. They are usually young people in the midst of their studies and decide to make Scotland their workplace assignment.

What Scotland should be doing is using them in our primary schools, as well as secondaries, to introduce the young to another language. Few want to know Gaelic and I understand their reasons.  Gaelic is not a language which will take any person round the world and be understood.  Whereas my knowledge of German has done and will continue to do so.

Dr Alasdair Allan, the minister for learning and skills in the Scottish government, said:

 “I share the concern expressed by the consuls general … and this government takes their views very seriously.

He should ensure that our primary children are introduced to a foreign language. No child is incapable of learning one if they're capable of learning their native tongue. If Scotland wants to improve its educational standards where better to start?

Will they listen?  Our young are wide open to experiences and language. They ought to be given the chance to learn how to communicate with the world.



Maverick said...

Spot on .... but I doubt they teach spelling in secondary school these days; let alone grammar !!!

subrosa said...

It seems the Scottish government are rather embarrassed about this Maverick as they had something in their manifesto about radically increasing foreign languages.

A basic understanding of a foreign language and music is surely a must for all children.

Anonymous said...

My kids do French in their primary in Aberdeenshire. They don't have any French students there though.

Sue said...

I have been incredibly lucky. My dad met my mum while he was stationed in Germany, so I was brought up bilingual (half my family couldn't speak a word of English).

Six years of being force-fed French in Grammar School and now living here in Spain has made me multi-lingual.

I can't ever imagine not being able to speak another language. Other than the fact that it's almost a necessity in this "global" (I'm beginning to hate that word) society, it's great brain-training.

It's probably what led me into learning various computer languages which have given me a decent living all my working life.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

It's a side effect of english being hypothicated as the 'universal language'by reason of dominance.

As usual the result of arrogance is ignorance of value and only measured by price.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post SB.

I've worked in a number of European countries and I on,y speak English. I've sat in meetings and taken part in discussions which involved 4 or 5 other nationalities. We all spoke English. Some could speak more than one language but I never met anyone who couldn't speak them all. English was the common language.

I'm sure that arrogance in language is still prevalent. I should have learned French, which was available at secondary school. Too many other things to do though.

I also speak gibberish mind you. Does that count ?

subrosa said...

Glad to hear that mister_choos. Aberdeenshire must be one of the few.

Why is it always French I wonder? I've often thought it would be better to teach wee ones Latin as it so easy to learn, then another language once Latin is understood.

subrosa said...

I can't imagine either Sue as having languages has expanded my private and personal life so much.

Force-fed French - aye sounds rather like here. Although I've visited France on many occasions somehow I think the force-feeding left me with a slight disinterest.

It shows I'm no linguist though. As you know computers baffle me. :)

subrosa said...

Dominance maybe Crinkly but of course Spanish is spoken by many more throughout the world.

subrosa said...

Ah, I've witnessed some real fun with those who don't speak a native language TT. The Swiss were great **** takers when English-only speakers attended meetings. Back in those days there were no translation services, it was expected people wishing to do business in a place understood the local language.

I well remember being irritated by a rather pompous guest in a 5 star hotel in Germany. He had demanded a telephone book from the receptionist (who did speak some English). She was so angry at his lack of manners, she called me. He started to shout 'why must I explain to another little woman that I need a phone book' and further abuse followed.

I let him rant for a good few minutes then told him in Germany that he was making a fool of himself. He didn't understand and set off again yelling about the lack of education in the country etc. By this time the whole lobby was tut tutting at his behaviour.

He was about to turn and leave when I quietly walked up to him and said "If you had mentioned the word please your blood pressure would be far lower now".

He stared in amazement. Then I took him into my office, gave him a phone book and explained that German for phone book was very similar to English. When he bristled at being a pompous oaf I reminded him that lack of language can be acceptable but lack of manners is not.

Give him his due he bought the receptionist a beautiful bouquet next day with a note apologising and he left me a note saying he intended to learn German ( he had business interests there) through the Berlitz school. I received a Christmas card many months later and it was addressed and written in German. "To the wee Scotswoman who broadened my horizons" I think it said and he went on to say he was now taking Italian as his work was also taking him to the Sudtirol.

Joe Public said...

Ah Rosie. School language-teaching - a subject about which I have strong personal views.

Mostly diametrically opposed to yours, I'm afraid.

Not necessarily in order of priority, but:-

1. When schools can't teach the 3 x 'R's to a high standard to every pupil, languages are a luxury the education system can't afford.

2. Languages in Primary Schools? Like sex, the pupils are far too young to understand it.

Of course I do have an opinion on the following article in todays Torygraph about primary schoolchildren to be taught what it is like to be transgender as part of plans to introduce “equality” lessons in to the classroom. It the 3-letter acronym WTF.

3. I always thought French was the 'preferred' (starter) language because they were the closest foreigners (Well the were to those in the South East).

4. Was it Jeremy Clarkson or a John Cleese character who subscribed to the ethos that shouting louder in English would compensate for not being arsed to learn a foreign language?

5. If English is the accepted language for Air Traffic Control, then it should be good enough for other activities too.

6. Your kindly neighbour who used to provide accommodation for a French speaking student would now be required to submit to a CRB check, provide umpteen references, agree to numerous Local Authority inspections, and probably submit 2 x DNA samples. [OK I lied about the last one]

7. Are Gaelic & Welsh deemed 'foreign' languages?

I've donned my flak jacket in anticipation of hostile responses from some of your readers.

subrosa said...

Joe, glad to hear you've donned your flak jacket because you'll get some flak from me too.

Of course your first point is valid and standards aren't what they were 40 years ago, but that shouldn't deter our professionals from trying to improve.

What evidence do you have that primary pupils are too young to understand another language? None I expect. For several years when my family was little, Fridays was German day. We didn't speak English at home then. After some years that tailed off because more independent interests became involved, yet 30+ years later they can still converse in German and, more importantly, are able to be mannerable in it too.

I thought French was taught in Scotland because of the Auld Alliance but I'm happy to be corrected.

It should have been Esperanto for Air Traffic Control. :)

My neighbour rented these students a room on a private basis. She was also a teacher and therefore had prior connections. :)

Joe Public said...

@ SR 20:08

"What evidence do you have that primary pupils are too young to understand another language? None I expect. "

I accept that I made a sweeping statement, and, some gifted Under-12s will be able to understand another language.

However, when tens of thousands of even Secondary-school leavers have poor grasp of the English Language and grammar, it seems obvious that there are deficiencies 'somewhere' in the system.

The point being, why devote scarce resources to teaching a second language, when everyone's not learnt the native language first?

I can remember during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the point being made for the importance of teaching Russian. To which one wag responded that all he needed to know was "Мы сдаемся".

subrosa said...

Again I disagree Joe. If a child can speak their native language enough to be understood, then they will be able to learn another. It's about the quality of teaching not the 'giftedness' of the child.

But I do see your point and would suggest that's down to the quality of teaching.

Scarce resources? Our children get more spent on them than most other civilised countries. Learning a foreign language can open up a whole new world to a youngster. It was the stepping stone to a very good career for myself for years.

Ha, ha, very clever. :)

Woodsy42 said...

A friend's family where the mother was spanish and the dad english used both languages to talk to their children from the time their chidren were born. The children were happily bilingual and could switch instantly. There is no minimum age to learn another language.

subrosa said...

Exactly Woodsy. If a child can learn its native language it can learn any other. It's best to teach them when they are tiny. They soak it up like a sponge.

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