What’s lost in translation

Promoting foreign language learning as a functional business skill won't inspire anybody to go beyond 'au revoir'.

Shirley Lawes

Topics Politics

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Schools in England will be given the target of ensuring at least half their pupils study a foreign language until they are 16, announced schools minister Jacqui Smith in December (1).

There has been considerable concern over decline in the number of pupils studying modern languages from the age of 14, since the government removed the compulsion for all secondary school pupils to study a modern language up to GCSE or the equivalent level. UK entries in French over 2004/05 were down 14.4 per cent from 2004 to 272,140, while those for German exams decreased by 13.7 per cent to 105,288.

As these results came out this summer, foreign languages suddenly took centre stage as the pundits, unions, employers and professional bodies had their say about what is wrong with current policy on language teaching. Government ministers claimed that we are just going through a temporary blip before the full force of primary modern foreign language learning gathers momentum. But there was very little said or written that offered new insights into the problem of the decline of foreign language learning in our schools and universities.

One major focus of the discussion was, quite predictably, on the needs of the economy. The leader column of the Financial Times on 20 August reflected the alarm of business and industry at the long-term decline in the number of students studying modern languages to A-level (2). The fear of losing contracts through a failure to speak a foreign language seemed to take on an inflated importance, and the questionable notion that ‘languages are vital to the economy’ was the greatest concern.

The following week, concern over the decline in GSCE entries for French and German fuelled the debate. A leader in The Times (London) (3) launched a virulent attack on government policy, accusing Jacqui Smith, the schools minister, of ‘defend[ing] the indefensible’ by claiming that the seven per cent rise in A* to C grades for French and German GCSE was a positive result of making foreign languages optional. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that languages ‘are in freefall’ (4). In an opinion piece in the Times Educational Supplement, Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, noted that 30 per cent of all new young modern languages undergraduates now come from the independent sector, where the study of languages continues to be compulsory to GCSE level (5). This will unfortunately contribute further to foreign languages becoming once again an ‘elitist’ subject area.

So what is the crisis in modern foreign language learning all about? Many critics argue that it is down to the UK’s not appreciating language learning enough, or talking about it in positive terms. The real problem, however, is that foreign languages are seen as important – but for the wrong reasons.

Policymakers’ view about the value of foreign language learning in our education system is that it is a skill with an assumed practical purpose relevant to business needs or future employment. This functionalism is enlivened by trying to make foreign languages relevant and entertaining by relating entirely to the lives of pupils themselves or young people in other countries; by spending time on learning to talk about topical issues such as healthy eating and the environment.

But these are impoverished views of foreign language learning, which indicate nothing about what a foreign language could give young people. They reduce foreign language study to a functional skill that teaches the sort of thing you find in a ‘get by’ phrase book. It is selling young people short and is unlikely to inspire anyone to see languages as anything other than mechanical and boring. Young people were never fooled by the idea that ‘you’ll get a better job if you speak a language’ and they are unlikely to be now, given the dominance of English as a world language. So why bother?

‘Speaking a second language enhances understanding of our own culture and opens the door to others’, said schools minister Jacqui Smith in December. That really is the point of studying modern foreign languages (far more so than Smith’s additional, instrumental claims: ‘And it offers enhanced job prospects and the opportunity to travel.’) Learning a foreign language can open up young people’s horizons in a way quite unlike any other subject area. The crunch is that, to do this, it has to be taught properly.

More years ago than I care to remember, I studied French to A level, and French literature was an important part of the syllabus. I studied works by Molière, Racine and Sartre among other things in the original French, and I struggled with them. I couldn’t understand them very well, I didn’t ‘use’ the knowledge in any direct way, but it was the beginning of an initiation into French culture that opened up new avenues of knowledge and understanding.

Today, however, if they are required to read any foreign literature at all, sixth-form students almost invariably read them in translation, with one or two passages in the original language. Yet there is so much more to be learned from studying a text in the original language: nuances, expressions, cultural references and ideas that are difficult to put in English but understandable to all who can read the foreign language. The beauty of the language of major texts is just not there in translations, however good.

Young people today are no less capable of studying these things than young people ever were – but the prevailing view is that this sort of knowledge is not relevant any more, not even for the potential linguists who study to A level and even for undergraduates on some university courses. The knock-on effect of a topic-based, functional approach is that what was once A-level work now has to start at university, if it ever does.

Defences of foreign languages as a field of knowledge in their own terms are few and far between at the present time. Even those who recognise the contribution of foreign languages to the all-round education and personal development of individuals, and the subject’s potential for broadening the horizons of young people, often still feel the need to justify their arguments in instrumental terms. Perhaps what such arguments fail to recognise is what is unique about foreign language study: its ability to break down barriers between people and countries and promote a sense of universalism in an individualised world.

The recent panic over the decline in numbers of young people learning foreign languages, and the diminished status of the subject area in the school curriculum, describe well the symptoms of the problem, but fail to get to its real cause. The concern will be short-lived unless we start asking some hard but fundamental questions about why foreign languages are important; questions that are to do with knowledge and the unique potential of foreign languages to enrich people’s lives and open up other cultures and literatures, rather than meeting the needs of the economy.

Knowledge of other languages will always be of importance as a cultural achievement, whether or not it is economically important as English becomes the global language of business. Unless teachers put this educational argument and abandon functional and vocational defences of their subject, foreign language learning will go into terminal decline in British schools.

Shirley Lawes is subject leader for modern foreign languages at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her forthcoming book, Modern Foreign Languages: Teaching School Subjects 11-19, with Norbert Pachler and Michael Evans, is published by RoutledgeFalmer in 2006.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Schools to get language targets, BBC News, 15 December 2005

(2) ‘That time of year: A-level agitation’, Financial Times 20 August 2005

(3) ‘Words fail us’ The Times (London), 26 August 2005

(4) Subject choices offer mixed blessing, Guardian, August 26th 2005

(5) ‘Something Lost in Translation’, Times Educational Supplement, 26
August 2005

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Topics Politics


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