Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Parlez-vous Francais?

Just how essential is learning a modern language at school? Is there really any point in studying French, German and Italian? Are all those hours memorisng those irregular French verbs really vital to survive in today’s world? Reading today’s Guardian, the answer given by many of Britain’s state schools seems to be a resounding “meh”.

According to a new report, studying a modern language at GSCE level (the equivalent to our Junior Cert) seems to be a trend best left to grammar schools, specialist schools and independent schools, many of whom are keeping up teaching these subjects. On the other hand, however, shows that many state schools are dropping them altogether. A crazy statistic shows that a mere 26% of pupils on free school meals study a foreign language at GSCE. Thus, the people who go on to study German or French or whatever at uni are mostly wealthy and middle-class. I find this is a bit dodgy, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Might as well just reinforce the stereotype that all working-class are only fit to be plumbers and drunkards, the plebs.*

*This is, of course, a joke.

In Britain, it is not complusory to study a foreign language at GSCE level. For the time being, at least. There seems to be a minor skefuffle over this topic,

Across the pond in my own green land, we are made study a foreign language up to Junior Cert, wherupon we can drop it (like it’s hot). In my experience, though, the majority of people choose to continue their language up to Leaving Cert. A reason for this is that most of the Irish Univeristys require at least one foreign language (except, interestingly, Trinity, which considers Irish to be a “foreign language”). The choice of languages we get are fairly limited. In my year, there are two French classes, one German class and one Spanish “class” which consists of two people, due to a glitch in the system. I’d guess that we’re fairly average in this respect (save for our two poor Spaniards), and although many schools do offer Italian/Spanish/Portuguese, I know hardly any that do Chinese, Polish or other, non-European languages, save for maybe a few specialist schools. Which I think is a mistake. What with the enormous number of Polish people living in Ireland and the emergence of China as one of the leading superpowers (is that word still valid after the Cold War?) in the world, it seems a little odd that the majority of Irish teenagers are unable to pursue these languages.

Personally, I’d jump at the chance to study any of them. At the moment, I’m doing French as my foreign language and obviously the complusory Irish, both of which are amongst my best (and favourite) subjects. I’m good at languages, wheras I’m not especially scientific. I’d love to be allowed do another language instead of Geography, for example. It’s one of my Big Ambitions in life to become bilingual at some point in the future, which isn’t a crazy Big Ambition, compared to some… But I mean properly bilingual, as competent in French as I am in English.

The focus of the teaching seems a tad skewed. Take the Irish course, a subject which I enjoy and have an interest in. It’s impossible huge, taking in poetry, prose, film and the history of the language as well as the usual essays, oral and aural exams. Most of my friends despise Irish as they see it as a boring course with far too much workload. I’m sure that the teachers would much rather work at promoting the language and encouraging students to take an active interest in speaking it, but the sheer magnitude of the work means that little or no time is dedicated to learning Irish for pleasure. With French, the course is a lot more managable, but there’s still much room for improvement. I’m quite happy to read French magazines and watch French films (avec subtitles!) but it would be better if they were integrated into the course more. It seems that learning languages involve a lot of learning by rote, memorising verbs and vocabulary for exams which later drift out of your brain. We shouldn’t learn Spanish to pass an exam, we should learn it to be able to converse with Spanish people, visit Spain and (perhaps) use in our jobs.

I want to be able to watch “All About My Mother” without subtitles, damnit!


Ann Marie said...

Technically Trinity is kind of a British college. The major British colleges were(not sure if it's still consider that way) Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity.
Have to agree with your sentiments on teaching language in school. I loved French and was fairly good at it. Not even a year later and I've forgotten a lot of it, especially those pesky verbs, I'd like to take a course at some stage.
There is an upside though. It was announced this week there's going to be more of a focus on oral Irish, in future leaving's it'll be worth 40% (I think aoife may be the first year) so at least that's something in the way of progress.

Catherine said...

Yeah, I heard about that 40% thing. I was going to include it, but I couldn't find a reliable link and I didn't want to report something that may be untrue! I think it's due in 2012 or something.

Ann Marie said...

Yeah I heard about it on the news and in the paper. The leaving will be 40% oral, 10% aural and 50% written paper. I think it is 2012 alright.

Damien Kelly said...

Well thank you for the very enlightening read, I do apologise for the tardiness of not having read this sooner. Yes, you CAN still use the word superpower, albeit that there is only America and China. What I DONT like here though is the fact that I was eventually going to a GMG on this topic over the workload in the Irish language course, and now you've done it, and insult to injury it was posted on my birthday...thats like...an 'un-bday' present or something....I'm off to cry now :(:(:(