Monday, 31 October 2011

Common Romance

Data supplied in answer to an Assembly Question last week appear to back up last month's suggestion by the Blether Region that Interlingua should be introduced to controlled secondaries as an alternative to more traditional modern foreign languages. The table supplied in answer to AQW 3578/11-15 shows a steep decline in the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE level since the Labour Government abolished the requirement that they do so back in 2004. Indeed, the figures from 2001 to 2009 show constant decline, from 17,472 to 11,574 total entries, respectively. However, at the same time, there has been a rise in the number of those achieving A* to C grades, from 68.4% to 80.4%. Moreover, the number of those going on to sit a modern foreign language at A Level has remained remarkably constant, with almost identical numbers sitting the exam in 2001 and 2009.

Needless to say, the collapse in the number of those studying languages to GCSE and the apparently improved grades of those who still do so may well be related phenomena. A large cohort of pupils who do not derive great benefit from conventional language teaching have been removed from the statistics, thus artificially boosting the percentages. Indeed, smaller, higher-ability classes at GCSE level may even have had an effect on the statistics for A Level passes, which have also improved.

Effectively, those not gifted linguistically have been disenfranchised twice: first by the requirement that they study a modern foreign language to GCSE level; and secondly by the expectation that they not have any kind of language instruction at all beyond Key Stage 3. In England, the signs are that the coalition Government will reintroduce the language requirement. However, that would amount to resiling from the current unsatisfactory policy in favour of its equally unsatisfactory and discredited predecessor.

Common sense suggests that academically and linguistically gifted pupils — those who already master the communicative element of language learning — should concentrate on accuracy in speech and writing while those not so gifted should concentrate on communication alone. And one need only consult a map of the distribution of Romance varieties to see that Interlingua can facilitate communication with native speakers of foreign languages like nothing else.

Northern Ireland is the largest region in these islands to have retained a grammar-school system. While that system may be failing in other ways, it does provide fertile ground for a reform of the type suggested.

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