Just why are we so bad at languages in the UK?

(226 Posts)
Tournament Mon 13-May-13 20:08:01

Ds2 in in y5 and has done Spanish on and off for nearly 3 years. He can count to 10, say hello and goodbye and sing a few songs. DS1 ys yr7 he did the same at Primary, but is now learning French and German. confused

We were on an activity holiday at Easter and met a really lovely German family. After dinner, our DCs ran back to the accommodation for the TV blush by the time we caught them up, they were playing Scrabble, with the German family, in English!

Their boys were 8 & 10 and both could communicate well in English at the start of the week. By the end of the week, I'd say they were both fluent.

I don't think my boys would even have tried hello/goodbye willingly.

agreenmouse Fri 17-May-13 21:54:11

Oh thank you ZZZenagain. That's so encouraging for me! I was beginning to think it was only me who saw value in that approach, and that I needed to stick to traditional topics. They are such joyful little characters. I will make more!

ZZZenagain Fri 17-May-13 17:41:45

my dd loves your spaniels and their little stories agreenmouse. We have quite taken to Maggie and Billy.

LaVolcan Fri 17-May-13 13:38:27

I am not sure how much you learn just by speaking. I often think this in classes where we talk to each other in broken Spanish and I wonder just how worthwhile it is. I would prefer to do a lot more listening and see and hear more extracts of films and dialogues and then be told key words or phrases to listen out for. I think the speaking would then follow on.

agreenmouse Fri 17-May-13 13:21:12

Who doesn't find it difficult to remember the names of characters in a book when you don't know how to pronounce them ....

It is the same with learning a language.

I am trying to help dcs for free. I'm a partner on TES and a blogger here. Look me up if you are interested - A Green Mouse

cheaspicks Fri 17-May-13 13:20:31

cote I teach TEFL. And, no, the kids I teach can't read and write yet, so that's not an option anyway, but my teaching method has always been based on the premise that speaking a word makes you much more likely to retain it than writing it down. I used to teach a group of OAPs, though, and they were very resistent to this - wanted me to teach English as if it were maths, with right and wrong answers all the time.

cheaspicks Fri 17-May-13 13:15:51

Ah, yes, I can imagine that to be very true. My fluency in English used to deteriorate when I went for several weeks without speaking it, but I can't imagine not being able to understand it even if I went for 10 years without speaking it!

CoteDAzur Fri 17-May-13 13:06:45

cheasepicks - Which language do you teach? And do you really get your students to write each new word in their notebooks with its English translation?

OneLittleToddleTerror Fri 17-May-13 12:07:04

chespicks no I didn't mean you can (or should) learn a language passively. What I meant is that without practice, the speaking part goes first. The listening part I seem to be able to retain. I don't listen to the language often, and it's about 10 years since I could hold a conversation comfortably in it. Maybe give it another 10 years I would have forgotton my listening skill too? I believe at this point of 'forgetting' I could still regain my proficiency without going to formal lessons.

I think another problem you pointed out might be the confidence bit? If you believe you can speak a language, you are more likely to try it on native speakers?

Mopswerver Fri 17-May-13 11:36:45

It is an uncomfortable truth but as English speakers we really do not need foreign languages as much as other countries do. We can get by without them. I am married to a Turkish man who speaks English and German fluently. Why? because if he was going to get a decent career he had to.

Having said that I think it is fantastic and enviable to be passable or fluent in another language.

cheaspicks Fri 17-May-13 11:35:26

Sorry, toddleterror having reread your posts you didn't say quite what I'd remembered reading blush. Do you think that learning a language passively to a very high standard makes spoken fluency guaranteed within a short period of immersion? It's a very interesting idea, particulalrly since my language teaching is all based around the assumption that a student has a much higher likelihood of remembering a new word if they have spoken it in the lesson, rather than writing it down with its translation.

cheaspicks Fri 17-May-13 11:24:57

ToddleTerror yes, MIL has probably been more proficient in Spanish in the past while she was actively trying to learn it. With English I'm less sure, as she is exposed to it much more since a Brit married into her family than she was in the past. I was trying to say that my experience tends to back up Lrd's point about differing interpretations of fluency. As a Brit I would never claim I could speak Japanese, although I used to be able to carry on a conversation on the subject of food a limited range of topics in it. Without entirely being capable of judging MIL's Spanish, I would guess it is, or has been, a similar level to the level I reached in Japanese, but for MIL and her family that is sufficient to claim "I can speak four languages".

I agree whole-heartedly with the point that listening and speaking should come first. I remember chatting to an exchange partner while doing A level French and feeling it was very odd that she seemed to understand my ramblings! It seems quite shocking to me now that after 6+ years of learning French I hadn't realised that the point of it was to be able to communicate my thoughts in a conversation with a native speaker of that language.

OneLittleToddleTerror Fri 17-May-13 09:05:37

I guess what I want to say is that listen comes before speak. If you have good comprehension, then it would only take practice or immersion to bring back the spoken fluency.

OneLittleToddleTerror Fri 17-May-13 09:03:54

cheaspicks your MIL might be just rusty in those languages. It's fairly hard to define fluency. I can follow a conversation of spoken mandarin chinese, both overhearing native speakers conversation or on the tv. (I aced that test posted on the BBC a while before which supposedly is used for testing agent's language). Like your MIL, I would really struggle to express myself in it. However, I am very very confident that if I have to live in China or Taiwan, I can be fluent quickly. I would put in my CV I can speak mandarin if it's needed for a job in the UK.

cheaspicks Fri 17-May-13 07:26:45

Good points made about what people define as fluency. I remember reading somewhere ages ago about how to describe language skills on a CV and it said "basic knowledge" would be if you had done an A level in the language, you could claim "a working knowledge" if you had studied it at university, and "fluency" meant you were at near-native speaker standard.

MIL on the other hand is regarded by the family as being able to speak four languages: German, English, Russian and Spanish. She can certainly communicate fine with my parents in English, but she will still translate obvious idiomatic phrases into English word for word and makes fairly basic grammatical errors. When I've heard her trying to speak Spanish it's obvious even without being able to speak Spanish myself that she is struggling to express herself. (Not a criticism of MIL btw, just using her as an example.)

TheBigJessie Thanks for your post smile I still think it'll be easier to learn in a 1-2-1 or very small group situation, for me, because it'll help to keep background noise down.

I do want to learn a language, German I guess, and it is on the wish list. I'll check the library as you suggest, and maybe see if I can look at DD's german school work.

JenaiMorris Thu 16-May-13 21:51:05

Ah, but Heidi wouldn't have been Heidi without the terrible dubbing smile

thanksamillion Thu 16-May-13 21:07:39

The dubbing here (Moldova) is awful because they do it over the original soundtrack. So the person starts speaking in English (usually) and then there's a tiny delay and the dubbed voice comes on.

It's slightly better than it used to be, when one guy would do the whole thing and give a commentary on what was happening too!

Yes. Dubbed programmes are very hard to follow because you don't even have a perfect match between the speech and the timing.

Portofino Thu 16-May-13 20:59:29

I notice here in Belgium, that French tv tends to dub foreign programmes whereas Dutch tv does subtitles. It does make a difference.

Absolutely LaV. I think commercial resources here can be very bad, too. My MIL is trying to learn English in her country, and her resources are all good, with perfectly sensible grammar and examples, and CDs with normal accents. I've bought two different sets of language-learning CDs about both have basic grammatical errors and the languages are spoken by people whose accents are a mix of non-native speakers or people with unusual accents, which does not help!

I think, unfortunately, we are not expected to know any better.

LaVolcan Thu 16-May-13 20:32:28

I think that's the key LRD - the Dutch, at least, seem to know how to progress beyond the GCSE level, whereas those of us who get to that level tend to plateau.

Again it's partly to do with having to - you can't get very far outside NL, Flanders, South Africa (maybe) with only Dutch. Germans can get by without knowing other languages and quite a number do, and it used to be the lingua franca of Central Europe until quite recently.

thanksamillion Thu 16-May-13 20:32:16

My DH has approached language learning (we moved abroad 5 years ago) as an academic exercise. His grammar and vocab are way better than mine but he gets frustrated that his accent etc don't match up to his knowledge.

Whereas I have done no very little actual study and just relied on picking it up and although my grammar is a bit all over the place I can communicate almost as well as he can. I am quite musical and think that this has helped in picking up the intonation and making me sound reasonably fluent even if I'm not really.

Eg., I know that if I hear an elderly English academic say diffidently 'well, of course, my French is very basic', he or she probably means, 'my French is quite adequate to read fluently but I have a slight accent'. If I hear a young Dutch or German academic say 'well, my English is very good', it means, they are able to get by but their grammar is probably full of mistakes and their written English will be error-prone.

I dunno, volcan. I wouldn't myself say GCSE passes made me capable in the language, but I know German and Dutch people who would confidently claim that they could get by at that level, purely because they would know how to progress rapidly after that and haven't been conditioned to feel that anything except fluency is unacceptable.

LaVolcan Thu 16-May-13 20:22:12

So, yes, at GCSE it is just another academic subject, and a bright person will manage to do well if reasonably well taught.

But few of us would claim that a GCSE/O level pass is the same as knowing a language properly, i.e. reading, writing, speaking and listening.

I say this as one with French and German O levels, and an AS level in Spanish. To be fair my reading knowledge is reasonable, especially in Spanish, but I certainly can't watch a film in Spanish without the subtitles. I think if I went somewhere out of the tourist areas/major cities and immersed myself in Spanish for six months I might become reasonably fluent.

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