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.

deleted203 Mon 13-May-13 20:27:10

I think you've probably got it in one with the last sentence!

I don't know why it is, but many English people seem to dislike learning languages and just dismiss it as unimportant/they can't do it, etc. This seems to start at a very young age.

I loved languages at school - I was so excited to be learning French and German, and tried really hard in lessons. I was the only sad geek in my class who liked Latin. I still (30 years later) speak enough to get by in each language, despite using them very rarely. I will always have a go at any language, and if we are anywhere abroad I am desperate to learn at least the basics.

My DCs on the other hand resisted any attempt to get them to see it as 'cool' or 'exciting'. Despite being forced (by school) to take a language GCSE none of the eldest 3 appear to be able to remember anything more than your DS can say in Spanish.

As a teacher (History) I have a lot of students of different nationalities - and will always insist they teach me to say, 'Good evening, it's nice to meet you' at least in Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, etc so that I can proudly greet their parents in their own language at parents evening.

(Having said this, one of my 15 yo Hungarian boys taught me what I thought was the above phrase so I could greet his father who was coming to parents evening...I can now apparently say, 'You are very attractive - are you married? in Hungarian. Dad was hugely amused and translated for me!)

I do think that being exposed to languages from an early age is probably key, as is seeing a point to learning it - and the reason most Europeans speak reasonable English is due to having access to a lot of American TV, for instance.

pillowcase Mon 13-May-13 20:33:50

I'm not speaking for the UK, but as an Irish TEFL teacher in France I hear the French asking the same question. Why are they so bad at English? I think the answer is the perceived importance of languages. The French simply don't believe Eng is necessary, just like the English/Irish don't believe you need a language to get by.

The Germans/Scandinavians believe this. It's a given that they will speak English. None of this 'learn your colours' shit either, but proper communication.

I saw French TV interviewing teachers in a Swedish school and the teachers spoke perfect English. They showed a typical English class. Then they interviewed the pupils. They were only about 8 but they were able to answer the interviewers questions in English. Amazing.

Primrose123 Mon 13-May-13 20:40:16

Like Sowornout I learned French and German at school along with Latin. I did a degree in French and German. I loved learning languages. I loved going abroad and being able to speak the language. I don't know why languages are not seen as important. I would love there to be more emphasis on the importance of languages in schools.

I'm a languages teacher, and in my opinion a large part of the problem is that we simply don't learn our own language properly, which makes it very very hard to learn a new one.
It is sooo frustrating trying to teach English kids how to put together a sentence in French, when you really need to go right back to the basics of English grammar in order to explain it to them!

Tournament Mon 13-May-13 20:42:55

Ah, now I remember that at school holmes. I thought terms like past participle and pro-noun were specific to French, I had never heard of them in terms of English grammar.

My DCs do seem to know those terms from English though.

I visited an international primary school in France when I was about 16 and the primary 3 children were doing the same curriculum as standard grade (scotland) examinations.

I was appalled and it made me work so much harder. It's quite embarrassing.

Laquila Mon 13-May-13 20:46:35

Completely second what holmes said. There is little point trying to teach kids a second language if they don't know what a noun is!

I wonder also whether there's an elect of self-fulfilling prophecy here. I was crazy about languages at school, and did French and German, and then Italian at uni too. If I'd had a penny for every time someone English said to me "Oooh, they'll be crying out for you in the EU once you graduate!" I'd be bloody minted. As it was, it took me quite a while to realise that I was extremely unlikely to get a high-paying, high-flying linguist-type job in Brussels or Geneva, because all of these went to the Europeans who'd been bilingual since birth, or since not too long after, an dhow utterly immersed themselves in their second or third languages in order to really excel at them.

Hence I got a bit disillusioned and now do a job for which my languages are useful, but certainly not essential.

GrandeGueule Mon 13-May-13 20:49:25

It is very embarassing. And it's arrogant. I remember before my year 7 French trip a friend said the only thing you needed to be able to say in French is 'parlez-vous anglais?' . Her dad had told her that. I still cringe now over 20 years later when I realise that it is all too common an attitude.

Takver Mon 13-May-13 21:44:12

I can't answer why, but its definitely not a new phenomenon. In Three Men on the Bummel (sequel to Three men in a boat), written in 1900, Jerome K Jerome does a whole riff on how appalling language teaching is in British schools. In fact he even makes the same comparison with German teenagers' excellent English.

I honestly don't think language teaching is generally bad in this country any more. It's that we start from a point of such low awareness of language that is hard to get anywhere fast.
The attitudes mentioned above certainly don't help. It's noticeable that at the private girls' school where I taught for 10 years, languages were very popular, and parents were always clamouring for us to add Japanese to the 4 other languages we already offered. Whereas in state schools it's hard to get them to continue with one.

Portofino Mon 13-May-13 22:13:13

I don't think we teach it early enough. The language acquiring bit of of your brain switches off after a point. My dd is 9 and bilingual English/French. She is currently learning Dutch at school. They are like sponges when young. Plus you need regular use of the language to stand a chance of being even nearly fluent. 2 x 2 hours per week will not work. These foreigners have uk programmes streamed into their homes, most often with subtitles. That helps a lot. Add the pop music with English lyrics...

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:30:46

Other countries are exposed to English all the time in songs, on TV etc. If we had French sings playing everyday I expect we would be better at French.

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:31:04

Songs- not sings.

exoticfruits Mon 13-May-13 22:32:46

English is also a common language so that a Dutch person may communicate with a Spanish person in English.

SprinkleLiberally Mon 13-May-13 22:35:33

No second language is quite as widely useful as our first so our motivation to spend time and money on language teaching will not be there. I'm good at French but still look like a lazy arse in Spain or China.

In other places learning English helps them worldwide. Really useful.

weasle Mon 13-May-13 22:44:05

Yes, surely motivation has a big part. Those German DC you describe in the OP are growing up in a time when the USA is a dominant culture. Films songs books in English are everywhere and kidsWANT to watch/ dance to / read these things. Also their parents are often fluent in another language and so it is normalised.

I'm hopeless at languages despite trying.hmm

muminlondon Tue 14-May-13 00:00:24

I think firstly because in the UK learning languages is still considered an intellectual pursuit rather than a useful skill most people might find useful, and anyone could pick up if motivated. So that's offputting. There is this weird hierarchy with Latin and French academic languages but 'community languages' are ignored and at the bottom. You may be a native speaker of Polish or Punjabi, fluent in English, but at school the DfE considers you to be a pupil with a disadvantage worthy of measuring in the league tables.

And secondly, the motivation thing. It's not cool. We just don't see famous people speaking languages. I did find some footage here (bit long, and from the US) which I like because it shows actors like Jodie Foster speaking fluent French, Gwyneth Paltrow and Barack Obama speaking Spanish, Sandra Bullock speaking German, etc.


agreenmouse Tue 14-May-13 12:20:03

I am writing this with half an ear to the radio - Radio 4 Robert Winston 'The science of music' - fascinating!

I have moved countries countless times throughout my life, always attending local schools or sending my dcs to them. My dd was 2.5 when we moved to France. I was standing in a queue for the butcher's in a supermarket, with her in the trolley, soon after we arrived. She had hardly ever heard French before. The French man in front ordered his meat and my dd immediately repeated aloud the exact sounds he had made - it was so startling that he and others all turned round and stared at her.
She was practising and enjoying the sounds - before she grew older and became self-conscious as sadly we all do at some point or other.
I love language and exploring different sounds and I'm trying so hard to help children get started at an early age - it's an uphill struggle that's for sure!
A Green Mouse

wordfactory Tue 14-May-13 12:33:27

Learning MFL is not considered important in the UK. Many schools stopped making it a priority years ago!

We don't start our DC early enough for a start. And mean proper teaching, not a peri who comes in to primary once a week to hold up a teddy and shout 'Bonjour'.

We need to accept that learning a MFL is hard work. That it involves rote learning. Much hated these days!

We need to accept that DC who don't understand the rules of grammar, will never be good at a language. Learning phrases is not good enough. One needs the building blocks so one can apply it. What is the use of being able to say 'I recycle my newspapers' if one can't roll it out?

And finally, we need to accept that what constitutes an A* today is not a level of proficency!!!!

znaika Tue 14-May-13 13:09:02

I am interested in this, because I am considering a UK edu for my DD who is bilingual and I am very interested in languages. What I have noticed with the UK is that (along with so many other things!) is when Brits are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are rubbish.

Loads of well educated and travelled British friends speak no languages at all, which I regard as strange, but as a native Russian speaker who has had lots of contact with expat groups in Moscow over the years, the Brits who can speak Russian are massively better at the grammar, accent and style than any other group (mostly comparing grads of Russian lang with other grads). So obv. they can be taught very well indeed. Why is this not universal? public schools? is there a state private school divide in this?

coppertop Tue 14-May-13 13:31:26

I suppose it doesn't really help that we live on an island. Our natural exposure to other languages is far more limited than if we were bordered by several other countries where the vast majority speak a different language to us.

As others have said, we also don't have much exposure to songs in other languages, except when Eurovision is on. Ask people to think of a pop song in another language and they'll probably say "Joe Le Taxi" or the German version of "99 Red Balloons". Not exactly helpful for learning language.

Schools don't have much time available in their timetables for other languages. They're too busy following whatever new policy the government has come up with. The Yr6 SATs are all about literacy and numeracy. Even science was left by the wayside. Foreign languages don't really stand much chance of success in primary school, and by secondary school age many children become too self-conscious to say anything in another language.

agreenmouse Tue 14-May-13 13:47:23

Sadly yes. There is also a huge difference between those who choose to carry on learning a language beyond school, and everybody else. English is such a dominant language that learning a second language has been neglected, but hopefully this will change.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 14:59:54

"There is this weird hierarchy with Latin and French academic languages but 'community languages' are ignored and at the bottom. You may be a native speaker of Polish or Punjabi, fluent in English, but at school the DfE considers you to be a pupil with a disadvantage worthy of measuring in the league tables."

what a fascinating point and how true!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:05:00

By the way, can I confess that I don't think learning a foreign language is at all important if you are fortunate enough to have English as your first language? It's useless in adulthood for 99% of learners because it has no function.

I think it's a nice cultural accomplishment, like playing the violin. I consider my own rote learning of French to have been pleasurable but nothing more - very similar to rote-learning 19th century poems.

Personally I would prioritise computer programming languages far above and beyond French, German, Italian, etc, which I would rank alongside my own subject of music in order of priority. Understanding a computer language now is, I think, the equivalent of what understanding a foreign language would have been in previous periods of history.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:06:41

sorry, me again. Would I also be right in thinking that many more girls than boys study MFL? And that whilst they are doing so, the boys are learning skills that will give them better paid jobs?

RealityQuake Tue 14-May-13 15:09:41

The whole "have to learn additional languages early/language learning switches off after a certain age" is a myth. It has been disproven repeatedly - adults learn languages faster and better. The only thing that must be done early is learning a mother tongue well, not additional languages.

I agree that languages are still treated like an intellectual pursuit (and many are pushed away from it due this and the many [[http://www.fluentin3months.com/reasons/ myths about needing language learning to be perfect its worthless which scares people off).

The UK education system and larger social systems don't really push a reason for learning a language other than it might be good on holiday and learning anything is good for you. If we had a steady reason for why we want to learn languages and passed that on, as other countries do, then things would likely change.

burberryqueen Tue 14-May-13 15:11:05

the teaching of languages is a joke - my children did French (why?) in primary school with essentially the same curriculum repeated for three years (you know, one to ten, a couple of songs) - the only extra language my daughter has done at secondary school has been Welsh as she has been deemed to dim for more, she has been doing it for three years and can say 'I like horses'. Oddly she is rather good at languages and can understand her Polish granny no problem. So i think it is a problem with the teaching and expectations and attitudes of the schools.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:14:43

I think a lot of it is geographical (and of course cultural). I was really struck travelling to Belgium recently how naturally they all speak several languages (Dutch/French/English), but of course it's because they have no option because all of those languages (except English, which is useful for tourists from all over) are spoken around them all the time. Contrast that with rural western France where we holiday most summers, and most people only speak French, with a smattering of English.

We don't get TV in other languages easily over here, and we're not routinely exposed to people speaking other languages the way someone living near a country/region border is, so it's not that surprising really.

Then add into that the deeply conflicted relationship we have with Europe and it all adds up sad...

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 15:15:44

English children are lazy and allowed to be so whereas many countries do not allow that. You have to learn a lot of vocabulary off by heart whereas you can do a good few other subjects without too much hard work so not surprisingly my local comp goes in for subjects like travel and tourism GCSE, car mechanics, beauty etc.

One of my sons say part of the problem is being taught in the language which is why he preferred latin which was taught in English so he could understand what he was being taught.

It may also be a question of your interests. I remember read the Chalet School series of books as a teenager where the children were taught in French, German and English total immersion in their Swiss school and thinking it would be good to know all 3 languages too so I was pretty good at French and did German A level. it probably in part sprang from those books and also the fact our mother was keen on France and the French and had French words written around the house when we were at primary school age.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:16:23

Sorry - realise coppertop has said the same thing lower down!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 15:17:27

but the Belgians have no option! If everyone spoke Flemish, Flemish people could get on with doing something else!

This has nothing to do with laziness. And I do think that women are being distracted into courses like MFL and music and not being told that these are courses with less well paid jobs at the end of them.

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 15:22:01

Come on - it is much much harder to learn a massive list of French vocab by heart than waffle on about a History "sources" material which is sitting in front of you.

Bramshott Tue 14-May-13 15:22:17

Yes - I guess that is the case with Flemish grin!

I don't agree with your point that "It's useless in adulthood for 99% of learners because it has no function" though - surely most people working in business have call to use a language from time to time? I mostly operate in English, but I've certainly had call to attend meetings in French, write emails and take phone calls in German, and talk to bus drivers in Spanish in the course of my job. Yes we CAN get by without other languages, but they definitely help us to smooth the wheels and come across as more welcoming/adaptable!

Takver Tue 14-May-13 15:50:21

Actually, the point about geography is a good one. DH & his siblings all speak excellent French. He grew up on the south coast, and his school organised regular exchanges with a French school, whenever his family wanted to go on holiday they went camping in France - all very easy given that Calais is probably nearer than London (and ferry tickets probably not much more than the train to London either).

Takver Tue 14-May-13 15:53:36

Definitely don't agree that languages are useless. I speak Spanish, read French ok though too out of practice to speak, and can get the sense of Italian well enough. I'd say I use one or the other at least once a month, communicating with suppliers, reading websites etc and I often wish I'd worked harder to retain more German.

In the past when I had a job involving cross EU projects then of course languages were even more useful. (Back then I could get by in French so long as you only wanted to talk about long term unemployment and urban blight grin )

znaika Tue 14-May-13 16:01:35

Is MFL useless for a job? Maybe translators are poorly paid but there's so much more than that. French and English are diplomatic languages so useful for UN, Embassy jobs etc. The expats I know in Moscow are grads in MFL (Russian and French or Russian and German, half of them know Slavonic!)and all are easily on 6 figures I would imagine.

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:33:23

thesecretmusicteacher - exactly that attitude is very damaging.

Learning a language is so much more than just being able to have a little chat in another language. When I decided to learn Spanish I didn't think about any particular gain, I just liked the culture and language. After a year I spent 6 weeks in Granada doing a language course and learned to love the language and culture and wanted to learn more, so much that I made it part of me degree course.

When I go to Spain these days I always speak Spanish and get very annoyed when they answer back in English (I am not even English confused, but I carry on in Spanish until realise I can't just say 'a beer please'. Very annoying!

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:40:08

In my DS's junior school they advertise that they teach Spanish. DS is in Y3 and once had a HW to go on a website to learn the days of the week in Spanish, and that was it for the year I think.

On 2 occasions I and DS has heard teachers say that they can't speak Spanish and that they hate teaching MFL.

dufflefluffle Tue 14-May-13 16:42:31

As one english woman told me: it's because we are used to being the rulers (and presumeably not having to bother sinking to the level of the natives!!). nice!

Nicolaeus Tue 14-May-13 16:50:09

As PP have said, learning languages is hard. Rote learning is necessary if you want to be fluent at some point.

I learned crappy GCSE level French and German but fortunately had excellent A level teachers who forced us to learn vocab (with weekly tests and having to read out your results in front of the class - very motivating!) and most importantly, the grammar rules.

I then studied both languages at uni which added on to this base, although you had to be very disciplined to continue with the vocab and grammar learning - you had few contact hours.

Now I live in France and am fluent in French (German is more rusty but I can pick it up fairly easily in context).

During my time in France I've discovered that those people who really master the language did the strict learning of grammar etc., whereas those who arrived without any academic studies behind them can pick up words and have conversations, but they're not as fluent. There is a huge difference between conversational level and fluency.

Having said that, I do understand why languages aren't pushed more in the UK, seeing as so many foreigners speak English. Afterall, I've studied 2 languages to a high level but if I meet a Spanish, Chinese or Polish person, I'll still have to talk to them in English which I'm very blush about, but it can't be helped (or rather it can but i don't have the time or energy to learn another language, other than a few choice phrases).

gabsid Tue 14-May-13 16:54:12

Nicolaeus - or you could speak to them in French.

Portofino Tue 14-May-13 17:11:37

I am always amazed at my Belgian work colleagues language abilities. Pretty much all of them are fluent in Dutch/French/English and many also speak Spanish and Italian as an aside. Some of them speak English better than some mother tongue English speakers I can think off, in terms of correct conjugation and richness of vocabulary.

I did French, German and Russian at school. It was the reason I got my first ever full time job - working in the Port of Dover, so it never did me any harm wink.

I agree with the point about "community languages". My DC are being brought up bilingual in English (my language) and Arabic (DH's). In my view Arabic is probably going to be more useful to them than French but isn't valued in an educational context because it is learned outside of school.

DH being forrin speaks 4 languages!

learnt not learned

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:28:24

what attitude gabsid? When you go to Spain, they answer you in English. I would go so far to say that it is wasting a waiter's time to address them in the local language unless you are fluent.

Your Spanish is clearly personally fulfilling. I feel the same way about playing the violin.I've even turned it into a second job. What I don't do is wish that all children were systematically taught the violin and insist that that be part of our education system.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:30:14

"Having said that, I do understand why languages aren't pushed more in the UK, seeing as so many foreigners speak English. Afterall, I've studied 2 languages to a high level but if I meet a Spanish, Chinese or Polish person, I'll still have to talk to them in English which I'm very blush about, but it can't be helped"

If she addressed them in French, they would answer in English.

I have devoted several years of my life to the acuisition of foreign language skills. It's made me a more sensitive and intellectual communicator but it's not a "hard" skill - it's an accomplishment, just like playing the violin is.

ChunkyPickle Tue 14-May-13 17:33:59

I think that the grammar point is a good one, certainly when it comes to formal teaching..

Having lived in a lot of other countries I speak a smattering of a few languages - none fluently though - I've found that for living in a country, once you get beyond doing your shopping, directions, restaurants, and a few other general bits and pieces you don't really need much more, and people are much more likely to want to practise their English on you anyway!

On the other hand, people who grow up speaking another language tend to want to learn English because it will help them progress in their work - English has been the working language of all my jobs, primarily because it was the only common language between a group of nationalities. My language skills would have had to be similarly advanced if it hadn't

Xenia Tue 14-May-13 17:34:44

I thin it is a hard skill which is why English children don't want to do it. They want to do the easy GCSEs.

ChunkyPickle Tue 14-May-13 17:41:19

I've thought of one thing that's always struck me - English speakers are very tolerant of accents - you can speak English in a very strong accent before it becomes unintelligible. This has not been my experience in other languages where people even seem to have trouble understanding other regional accents (or perhaps I've just been unlucky?) eg. Central American Spanish vs. Southern European Spanish accents.

I don't know if that has any relevance in all this, but I almost feel like it could - perhaps people give up too easily when others have trouble understanding them

lljkk Tue 14-May-13 17:41:45

English are xenophobic, often.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:44:39

Xenia, I think that there is plenty of memorising to be done in biology, chemistry and physics. Not to mention at medical school.

Learning languages isn't that hard. Otherwise all the not particularly bright Czechs I know wouldn't do it so well. It's all about the learning having a function in real life rather than being a cultural pursuit.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 17:48:14

lljkk - possibly, but the Slavonic countries have a rather more depressing reputation for xenophobia than we do - it doesn't stop them speaking English.

In music education we have kind of "got over" the fact that life goes on whether or not you master standard notation...... that a lucky few might use it for a short-lived orchestral career but mostly it's just to access pleasure and fulfilment. Something you fund with your day-job.

throckenholt Tue 14-May-13 18:01:03

We are bad at languages because English is our native language. We don't get any real exposure to other languages. And we teach it piecemeal - we don't to much in the way of immersion. I was talking about this with a German friend the other day - they teach English from the start by only talking English in the class during the English lesson - the children very quickly pick up the vocabulary.

Compared with my DS who supposedly did French for two years (yr 3&4) at primary but at the end of that could barely count to ten and not much else.

The Dutch are renowned for being good at foreign languages - mostly because they import a lot of TV but it isn't dubbed because it is too costly. So they get exposed to lots of languages.

I regret that I am not better at languages - and am trying to instil the love of language in my kids.

Bonsoir Tue 14-May-13 18:04:00

You have to really want to learn a language to become fluent. I was always excited by languages. Luckily for me when I was a child lots of people in my family spoke several languages, and not just French, which was a given - Russian, Arabic and of course Spanish and German. Others have gone on to learn Chinese. And then I moved to a country as a teenager where I was expected to learn lots of MFL - the opportunity was easy to seize.

I'm not sure how easy it is to enthuse children who are surrounded by people who only speak English.

My DH's nephews and nieces who live in France but close to the border with Germany speak French and German because they are exposed to both languages on a daily basis. You can catch a local bus from France to Germany.

elQuintoConyo Tue 14-May-13 18:43:01

useless in adulthood for 99% of learners is ridiculous, quite frankly.

I'm a tefl teacher abroad and children here are exposed from a much earlier age at school, not necessarily as an 'extra' class that costs money. It's seen as highly beneficial to speak another language for future work.

I find the Brits I meet, apart from the ones who have made this their home, can't speak Spanish for shit and don't want to, poking fun at it instead.


Startail Tue 14-May-13 19:08:14

For me the problem is simple and the solution very very difficult.

As a parent I can help my DDs with everything they do at school except MFL.

Languages have been so badly taught in Britain for so long that we need to educate the parents as well as the DCs to stand a realistic chance of improvement.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 19:08:24


"useless in adulthood for 99% of native english speaker learners" would perhaps be a better way of putting it.

do you see?

Primrose123 Tue 14-May-13 19:11:04

I thin it is a hard skill which is why English children don't want to do it. They want to do the easy GCSEs.

I don't think that's true Xenia, maybe some English (or British) children are like that, but many of the teenagers that I know want to study the traditional subjects like sciences and languages, because they are ambitious. My elder DD is doing GCSEs at the moment, and apart from maths and English, she is doing three sciences, three languages and art. (She's not English though, she's Welsh!)

I have to say I never found languages too difficult. I studied MFL to degree level. You do have to learn lists of vocabulary, but that's not too bad, the more you learn, the easier it gets, as you can see patterns in the words and meanings.

I found languages easier than many other subjects, because I didn't have to learn long chunks of text to reproduce in an exam. When you learn a language, you learn in small chunks, vocabulary, grammar etc. and then apply it together when you do an exam. I found that much easier than trying to learn pages of history or geography!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 19:15:18

again, asked yourselves, is the entire population of the Czech Republic so much clever than us? Is that the reason why 95% of them speak English and none of us speak Czech? Is it that their entire school system is so much better?

No, it is not. The reason is that for them, learning English has a function and is part of everyday life. Learning Czech, for us, is not. I did manage to make it so for two years. It was very hard work - not learning the language - but rather cultivating relationships with people who were both educated enough to be interesting and simultaneously willing to do me the big favour of not speaking English.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 19:32:38

sorry, still musing...

I think that -

* if you come from a non-English-speaking country, learning at least English and also your neighbouring countres' languages is as basic a skill as learning to use Microsoft Office. You don't have to be particularly clever, you just get on with it.

* if, however, you come from an English-speaking country, learning a MFL is effectively an arts subject like drama or music. And this is why we learn the pretty languages with lots of famous literature rather than the ones of our own immigrant population.

*if you really want your child to learn a foreign language, that's a valid thing to do, just as music lessons are valid, but you need to leave them abroad for the summer surrounded by children of the native land playing football/guitar with them.

Bonsoir Tue 14-May-13 19:34:09

Learning lists of vocabulary is a pointless, redundant exercise as the words don't end up in the bit of your brain from where words are retrieved when you speak or write.

Helpyourself Tue 14-May-13 19:41:56

Chdten in other countries aren't good at languages- they're good at learning English. Big difference. Where there's a reason to learn and an opportunity to practise children in the uk are just as good- viz mother tongue bilingualism and welsh medium schools.

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 19:53:52

Bonsoir, yes, I found that out the hard way.....

Helpyourself, great point.

Ironically, having a bit of academic language-study does help you be a better TEFL-teacher. I used to stop them pronouncing v as w by writing down lots of v- words in czech then slipping in a sneaky English v-word.

Hardly a reason to devote an A-level to it though is it?

Portofino Tue 14-May-13 20:18:43

I like the Michel Thomas CDs because he builds up the language bit by bit. With him and a dictionary you are set to have a conversation.

Erebus Tue 14-May-13 20:48:20

Well, imho, the reason we're 'bad' at learning MFLs is simply that we don't need to.

All those crying 'shame' etc- but the reality is, you'll rarely meet, face to face, a person in your job or day to day association who cannot speak English better then you can speak their language so, really, why bother? Yes, there are those who loved learning French, then German, then Latin, then Spanish etc etc and who would apparently love for their DC to participate in the same joy- but did that mum get the same joy from 'learning' the beautiful language of maths? The symmetry of it? The genuine universality of it? No? Cos, maybe 'maths iz hard'... Well, so is MFL to those not thereby gifted.

I want my DSs to 'pass' their MFL. I am never expecting them to ever have to communicate in it other than in a 'respectful' " I can greet you in your own language" level, or order a beer in it, as they are not naturally gifted linguists (like the ability to 'pick up' 5 different MFLs in quick succession implies...). Within moments, their forrin counterpart will be communicating quite arcane and complex ideas to them in English.

Kizzit Tue 14-May-13 21:01:39

But the world is more than just 'England' though isn't it? Is the attitude of expecting people in other countries to speak your language not rude,to say the least? Is that why,when you go abroad you still come across clumps of expats who don't speak a word of the local language. Would they not enjoy being able to converse in the language of the land? Or do they think that it's ok to go round expecting everyone to understand you if you just SPEAK A BIT LOUDER?

Bonsoir Tue 14-May-13 21:03:41

If you limit yourself to English, your travels won't be nearly as interesting.

superfluouscurves Tue 14-May-13 21:12:47

Agree Kizzit I think it's stems from a certain insularity (I never realised how insular the UK was until I left it!) and a certain ill-founded complacency/arrogance on our part.

Just watch the BBC news every night - you would barely know that other countries in Europe exist!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 21:28:27

Kizzit, I would have agreed with you when I was younger but not now.

When I'm not being asecretmusicteacher I do travel on business. It's almost rude to speak the language nowadays - it's like you are eavesdropping on a private language. And it would be insulting to suggest someone couldn't speak English. It is, in business, for them to make sure someone is present to translate for anyone who struggles with English.

It's the opposite of insularity - English no longer belongs to this island, nor does it belong to the English-speaking countries. It is the language of business.

Remember, when you address a waiter in English- they do not think you are English. They do not even think you are American. So far as they are concerned, you might be from Serbia or Chile - but you are doing the accepted polite thing and, given that you are not fluent in the local language, using the world's lingua franca instead.

superfluouscurves Tue 14-May-13 21:36:42

>"It's almost rude to speak the language nowadays - it's like you are eavesdropping on a private language."

This is certainly not the case where we work and live - quite the opposite! And we would be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of business/negotiating contracts if we couldn't understand the native languages and only relied on English!

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 21:40:39

what do you do and where?

thesecretmusicteacher Tue 14-May-13 21:46:21

ah sorry,l have gleaned from your post that you live overseas.

Yes, one would be slightly bonkers to live overseas and not use the local language. That's completely different from making a business trip to a country where you visit then return.

Hmmm, so maybe schools should be trying to develop a general "ear" for those of us who might become expats? in the same way that we train (or ought to train) the child's ear before they start an instrument, and before we know which one?

How then can we justify non native speakers working as MFL teachers in our schools?

Lisaletta Tue 14-May-13 22:20:25

As someone who took French A Level years ago, I have found it totally useless apart from a week or so on holiday every now and again. The amount of time and effort involved in getting to a basic level is massive and not justified by any advantage gained. Also it is not clear what language will be useful. There are so many people around who are bilingual in London that there is no premium or job advantage.

Nice thing to do like learning to play tennis or dancing lesson but I can quite understand why state comps don't prioritise this. BTW obviously agree that if you go and live abroad you need to learn the language. Clearly there will be a great incentive to do so in that case.

muminlondon Tue 14-May-13 23:37:29

the Slavonic countries have a rather more depressing reputation for xenophobia than we do - it doesn't stop them speaking English

But on the whole they are more pro-EU (or know they have benefited) whereas anti-European sentiment with the rise of UKIP is a barrier to language learning

it is much much harder to learn a massive list of French vocab by heart than waffle on about a History "sources" material which is sitting in front of you

No, completely disagree Xenia - I found it incredibly easy to learn a massive list of French vocab (and even easier if the vocab was grouped thematically) but actually quite hard to write history essays. But the hard bit with languages is actually speaking and witing fluently rather than passively understanding.

I've been on holiday with very intelligent people who refused to open their mouth and order a beer in any foreign language they hadn't studied past A-level in case they made a mistake or sounded foreign. Very perfectionist but you never get very far if you are too self-conscious.

That goes back to the point that znaika made:

the Brits who can speak Russian are massively better at the grammar, accent and style than any other group ... Why is this not universal? public schools? is there a state private school divide in this?

No, I don't think there is a divide by the time you get to A-level. I was looking at Oxford undergraduate admission statistics and there are similar numbers of state school pupils getting accepted on MFL as from independent schools. But as there are fewer applying from either sector it's actually easier to get in than for other subjects. I think that's true of quite a few Russell group universities.

muminlondon Tue 14-May-13 23:47:12

'writing fluently' blush

throckenholt Wed 15-May-13 07:35:38

I have to say that it is far easier now to study MFL in the UK than it was when I was at school. It is so easy on the internet to find spoken and written MFL language content - masses of lessons, interactive practice, as well as all the videos, newspapers and other website content.

If you want to learn it - it is all out there for you to practice with (unlike when I was at school when it was a major effort to get anything in a foreign language).

The problem is that it takes effort to learn a language and most Brits for some reason can't be bothered to make that effort.

lljkk Wed 15-May-13 08:09:46

They don't have to; a Pole or a Turk can see the huge personal value to themselves in learning English but it's a bit nebulous to most people why they would find it useful to learn German or French. Especially with the widespread myth that "all X-Country-people speak English" anyway.

Erebus Wed 15-May-13 08:20:04

I'm amazed that you think "most Brits for some reason can't be bothered to make that effort."

You really can't see the fairly obvious reason why? Because they were born speaking the world's lingua franca. Learning another MFL therefore becomes a thing you might like to do rather than something that bestows upon you a basic building block of higher-level employment. All Europeans in 'international-style' jobs can or want to speak English. A friend of mine teaches English in her home, Her biggest clients are the French and Italian professionals who see that the way forward for them, out of the collapse of their country's economy is better English. The way out of ours isn't better Portuguese!

France, famously guarding of its language is, right now, struggling with new legislation that will allow higher level university courses to be taught in English so as to widen their appeal and to allow exposure to a vastly greater pool of resource. Apparently many unis have been doing so for years much to the Academe Francais' (sp?) irritation!

To me I find a degree of perversion in the notion that 'we rude English speak English because we are arrogant and feel superior to others, hence feel no need to learn other languages' rather than 'our language has become the de facto language of international communication and the reality is, we no longer 'own it' at all therefore need feel no superiority in speaking it, often no better than a EAL speaker'.. But this shouldn't make us hang our heads in shame and go and learn Estonian or whatever.

Q "I've been on holiday with very intelligent people who refused to open their mouth and order a beer in any foreign language they hadn't studied past A-level in case they made a mistake or sounded foreign. Very perfectionist but you never get very far if you are too self-conscious". Yes, but the waiter will reply in English, won't he?!

LaVolcan Wed 15-May-13 08:36:57

I agree with Erebus - the language we speak has ended up as the world's lingua franca so we feel we don't need to bother.

A problem now is that we don't know which language to teach in schools, whereas other non-English speaking nations have the obvious candidate in the English language.

cory Wed 15-May-13 08:54:55

Sadly, the "I don't need to" has fed into an attitude of "it's probably terribly difficult anyway", so even people who would find it beneficial are daunted by it. I can see it in my dd: she is heavily into literature and theatre so learning French would have obvious benefits, but she seems to have developed all sorts of hang-ups about it.

Not sure the difficulty of choice is such a biggie: when I was at school in Sweden it was taken for granted that you would learn both English and either French or German. Once you went on to college there was a good deal of pressure to learn the other language there. 3 languages was the norm for anyone planning to go on to university. Nobody suggested that you should only learn English. And I can't see any reason why French would have been more important or more accessible to us than to the Brits- France is further away and there are fewer French words in the language. Most of the people I met at uni had a good knowledge of at least 3 or 4 languages. They must have managed their choices.

It was just assumed that learning languages is a Good Thing. It was also considered cool. We all wanted to travel after school, and travelling meant entering another culture, trying to become part of it, most of my friends went out as au-pairs and not necessarily to the English speaking countries.

Bramshott Wed 15-May-13 09:27:48

That's a good point cory - that people in other countries are better at learning a range of languages, not just English.

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 09:37:13

but Cory was in Sweden.....

LaVolcan Wed 15-May-13 09:41:53

It's somehow no longer seen as a Good Thing in England, (and I do mean England, not the UK). Maybe if all universities insisted on an MFL for all courses of study, then it might begin to redress the balance? So there was the expectation that an educated person spoke at least one other language?

I've been doing classes in Spanish for the better part of the last ten years. There is no lack of appetite for people wanting to learn and the beginner's classes start off full, but people soon drop away. With adults, it's usually time pressures, work takes them away and that sort of thing which causes them to drop out.

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 09:45:24

OK... so

there are very similar issues to music education here.

there are people out there who will systematically teach children who don't have it naturally to have a musical "ear". But not many schools or parents take them up on this because it doesn't seem as much of an achievement as learning the trumpet. Whereas if you have had the privilege, as I have, of watching a child schooled in ear-training to learn the trumpet, you see it's all worth the initial investment, and you can also see how that child is mentally prepared to learn almost any instrument.

Is there anyone really thinking deeply about what the pre-vocab skills would be to systematically teach an ear for languages? In music, we now know that it's all about exposure and having some involvement, and about using your own voice from the earliest stages. We know that lots of talking about music, lots of use of vocabulary, is education about music but not education in it.

I think that vocab learning should always follow behind ear and tongue - as is now accepted in music. As said above, the internet means that there is no excuse for picking up a bad accent.

I don't mean to be horrible there, but I don't think there is or should be much future for teachers of foreign language who speak with a strong English accent.

I would absolutely disagree that learning an additional language is useless. Completely aside from the advantage of being able to speak to other people in their own language instead of considering yourself all superior and expecting them to speak yours, knowing another language enables you to think in new ways.

I speak two languages in addition to English, one of them structured in a similar way but a very simple, literal language. I studied this language for 12 years through school, and when I went to university, I found that if I thought about maths in terms of this language (basic and literal), mathematical functions were easier to get to grips with.

The other language I learned as an adult and is a very ancient one with a completely different grammatical structure and a different script. I find I can express concepts in this language which English just can't.

So I am very much of the opinion that the more languages you learn, the more different ways you learn to think and conceptualise. You can't think without words, and the more words you know, the better you can think!

I think languages should be taught by someone who comes from the same country for a start e.g. French teacher teaching French. Also, one lesson, or two a week is rubbish. There was a thread a couple of months ago about this subject and the German MNers were saying that parents play English tv/music at home, there are English nursery rhymes in kindergarten. There is more of an immersion and sense of doing it properly and taking languages seriously. I do think Erebus made very valid points though.

superfluouscurves Wed 15-May-13 10:01:15

Rushing ... so pls excuse short-hand ...a couple of quick points:

(1) Cory I wouldn't be so confident about English being the 'de facto' language of international communication for the forseeable future. If dd lived in the UK, I would make sure that she was learning Spanish and Chinese.

(2) Erebus as it happens, between 60and 70% of English words are derived from French but agree, nowadays would favour Spanish over French

(3) Lisaletta (and the poster much lower down the thread who said that the benefits of learning languages while young are exaggerated) there are more advantages to language learning at an early age than just increased communication skills ie increased cognitive function and problem-solving skills (something to do with the development of brain synapses I think - you use a different part of the brain to learn languages before the ages of 5-8 yrs than you do thereafter) eg this link

(4) thesecretmusicteacher I would argue that the same principle applies to business meetings whether one is resident in the country or not, but completely agree about the importance of children being exposed to (at the very least the possibility of) communication in languages other than their own and agree, we can't justify non-mother tongue language teachers in schools - they are essential I think.

Bonsoir Wed 15-May-13 10:01:58

You cannot teach an ear for languages - all humans are able to acquire languages and all learn at least one from birth. The important thing if you want to learn a particular language is regular repeated exposure to mother- tongue speakers from an early age. Languages are best learned over a long time period - hence the silliness of two year GCSE courses.

LaVolcan Wed 15-May-13 10:02:18

there are very similar issues to music education here.

That's very interesting. I once had a brilliant music teacher whose proud boast was that he could get a tune out of anyone - even those who didn't think they could sing.

One problem with both music and languages is that they have been seen as rather elitist pursuits, rather than being for enjoyment and communication. They have been seen as something that only a minority are capable of doing. Yet I know people who were only considered average as school so not offered languages or music; circumstances have taken them abroad to live and they have ended up in e.g. Sweden, Italy, where outside the main cities and tourist areas, they most definitely need to learn the language and have done so.

flanbase Wed 15-May-13 10:05:37

It's important to have the confidence to give it a go and kids don't get that at school. They just need to start to talk and make mistakes and not be sitting at desks in a classroom. Language isn't something that is learnt by looking at a school book, hearing english spoken by the teacher & getting told off for making an error, it's something that has to be used to reinforce knowledge

OneLittleToddleTerror Wed 15-May-13 10:15:26

It's not surprising most children find learning another language not useful. Like most already said, it's the default business language in the world.

But I found it disturbing when some people think you can get by with English anywhere in the world. Maybe it's true in Europe (except France, where I found actually no one would answer me in English). I've travelled to Korea and Japan and I can honestly say English doesn't work there at all. I was reduced to pointing at things and gesturing by hand. It's true if you are there on business trips, you'll be able to get by in English only. We usually get a taxi transfer and we also have our meeting venue and hotel printed out in the local language. But if you want to venture into the street, expect no one able to understand you.

And it's not true in foreign land they listen to english songs. It's definitely not true in the far east.

Anyway, how many young people expect to grow up and work locally in a very foreign country? I don't mean working for a multinational on a foreign contract. I know two people who works as a postdoc in a Japanese university. I mean a job as local as that? I think it's very rare.

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 10:25:59

Anyway, how many young people expect to grow up and work locally in a very foreign country? I don't mean working for a multinational on a foreign contract. I know two people who works as a postdoc in a Japanese university. I mean a job as local as that? I think it's very rare.

I suppose we don't really know.... we don't know whether in the future people will travel more or less (peak oil, climate change, etc).

I think the current model is broken. There is very little in favour of rote-learning vocab. unless it happens to float your boat intellectually. I think, as a feminist, that it's telling that I can use charming anecdotes in several European languages but have no idea how my car works....

Better models might include joining in, via skype, your favourite class (say, maths or history or music) in a classroom in the country of your choice. You have to be outnumbered... it's pointless to have one token foreigner....

another way you could learn...... if, as a younger teenager, you went overseas and helped out in a local school abroad, say in a nursery.... where 90% of communication is non-verbal and you would "tune in" to what the children said very intently (because they cannot translate)....

I think we need to accept that the traditional model is not producing many people who really benefit, and almost none to benefit the economy. However, that doesn't mean there's no value in learning a foreign language, just that traditional school lessons may not be the place for it.

flanbase Wed 15-May-13 10:32:32

Perhaps looking at the history of words and where they come from and how language has developed would help. Another thing would be learning about a countries culture and history and what it's like for the children''s age group who live would help interest. The children could learn some basic phrases and have a context for it. The teachers could ask what languages are in the class at school and the children who speak another language/s could do a presentation on it.

ZZZenagain Wed 15-May-13 10:35:01

In the case of Germany, OP, they teach them differently. So probably don't start English till year 5 (depends a bit on school and state) but learn vocabulary lists which are tested, learn the grammar, have a lot of written exercises and again are tested regularly for their yearly grade. Do that for 3 years and the dc have a fair grasp of main verbs and a wide vocabulary. They don't do a taster of French, then a taster of Spanish etc. They start with English or French usually and then they have to stick at it. It isn't an easier subject than say maths or mother tongue German.

We do more singing and a bit of this and a bit of that fun activities in primary (which is nice, I do like that approach but it just isn't sufficient to move you on). A blend of both the German and the British approach would be a good way forward IMO.

OneLittleToddleTerror Wed 15-May-13 10:41:42

thesecretmusicteacher DH went on a exchange trip to some french speaking island on a language trip when he was at school. (We are from NZ). He said the kids only want to speak English to them! I think that wouldn't be a rare experience. I can't think of many countries where English isn't taught. The kids will definitely want to try out their English on you. It's very different when you end up working overseas, and trying to talk to your taxi driver, or order food at a local food stall.

My two postdoc friends in Japan both have a PhD in robotics. Japan is very very strong in robotics research. In most other area in science you have a choice to go to the US or Europe. One of the postdocs did Japanese at school. The other didn't but is learning it now in Japan. Though I agree if you know a language fluently, you have more doors open in research level sciences. One of the girls I did my postdoc with now has a lectureship in France. The teaching language is French. (She's Romanian but speaks English and French).

I don't know what's the answer is to teaching MFL in the UK. We have the same problem in NZ, btw.

mrsshackleton Wed 15-May-13 10:42:00

Agree, it's because we just don't need to speak other languages at all/well.

I have a degree in two MFL and speak two others reasonably well. I rarely use them, because wherever I go in the world, my interolocutor wants to practice English on me - no matter if I speak their language better!

I'm glad I studied MFL, but I often wish I'd been born French or whatever so my aptitude for languages could really have given me a heads up.

OneLittleToddleTerror Wed 15-May-13 10:46:51

Forgot to say I was also asked to apply for a postdoc in France. It was a very very good institute, in an industry linked project. But I was too scared to do it angry as I can only count to 4 in French and say a dog, a cat, etc. This is despite a few years of French at school. So there's definitely an opportunity lost.

LaVolcan Wed 15-May-13 10:48:03

....but learn vocabulary lists which are tested, learn the grammar, have a lot of written exercises and again are tested regularly for their yearly grade.

This doesn't really explain why they speak English well. We used to follow the same model, and were pretty poor at speaking. I had five years of French using this method, got a decent enough O level, and could barely ask for a cup of coffee the first time I went to France as a 16 year old.

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 10:50:02

rights... gosh...

How about this? Let other countries specialise in multiple language acquisition. How about if we specialised in being really good at, say, physics, as a country, and recognised language-learning-via-school (as opposed to via immersion/foreign parent) as an arts subject to be taken for general intellectual fulfilment? As important - indeed as deadly serious a subject - as lifelong study of the Beethoven string quartets - but something very unlikely to earn you your major wage.

I mean, how much are we spending per child on them saying "excusez-moi, ou est l'eglise?" and then not actually understanding the answer..... ? And what is the opportunity cost of them deciding against engineering under the fond illusion that writing A-level essays in moderate French is an employable skill? Is it really worth the money unless we get a better handle on what we are doing it for?

ZZZenagain Wed 15-May-13 11:13:05

I don't know how old you were. When you were taught towards the French O level, perhaps dvds with foreign language functions and access to the internet were not universal. German dc nowadays have both the language fundamentals drilled and the easy access. If they are middle-class, they may well be tutored privately in addition to that. If they holiday abroad, quite often they will hear their parents having to communicate in English (wherever they might happen to be in an English speaking country or in a country where ENglish is not the mother tongue) so it is something they expect to do when they are adults too.

It is just another subject they have to get through, so they get on with it. I think that is how it is in most European countries tbh.

lljkk Wed 15-May-13 11:18:21

I have a wonderful knack for quickly finding myself surrounded by only non-English speakers on my travels to any country in the world (Sweden, Germany, Poland), which is why I know "everyone speaks English" is such a huge myth.

If you limit yourself to English, your travels won't be nearly as interesting.

I have encountered so many people who insist they would never want to travel, anyway (back to my xenophobic comment). It is easy to find people who have rarely been outside the county, even (note I said COUNTY, never mind country).

we teach it piecemeal

I'd like to scream my agreement to that.

My language classes were a 50 minute lesson DAILY for a full school year. And everyone was required to take 2 yrs of that language. This patchy nonsense of an hour of German and 2 hrs of French both from scratch, drives me very batty. DS spent all of yr7 unable to remember which was which.

I speak Spanish & it has come in useful in almost every job I've ever had (including many in the UK). But rarely essential. And little use for supporting DC because no secondaries around here teach Spanish.

ZZZenagain Wed 15-May-13 11:30:46

daily lessons make a big difference IMO.

If dd is beginning to learn a new language, I always see to it she does something in it every day. I did this with Latin and then when we moved to the Czech republic, we worked on Czech every day, just a bit and now with Spanish. Might not be much that we end up doing but I think that daily exposure moves you forward best.

A good daily lesson would move you forward better than that but the school time-table can be so crowded already that it might not be possible to fit it in, unless something else was dropped.

UNDERTHEACERTREE Wed 15-May-13 11:38:23

Because we cannot be bothered as perfectly acceptable to many nationalities to communicate in English overseas + because we don't start teaching languages in school at an early enough age or with any sense of immersion + because some children (mine!) cannot find any self-motivation in learning French when by 2020 it will be the 27th most spoken language (or so they tell me) and schools are loathe to go through any process of managing out their French teachers.

You might like this story: when she was 6 and a bit my daughter was offered an academic scholarship at a Surrey school for Year 3 entry, however we then moved overseas and education in an international school beckoned. At the first parents' meeting at the international school we were told "Well she has an excellent report from her UK school and she has been offered a scholarship at another UK school, but she can't be that clever as she's the only child in Year 2 who cannot speak two or three languages fluently". At a visit back to the UK it amused me that schools with high percentages of children speaking English as a second language were seen as schools at a disadvantage whereas overseas the opposite was the case.

cory Wed 15-May-13 13:30:10

superfluouscurves Wed 15-May-13 10:01:15

"(1) Cory I wouldn't be so confident about English being the 'de facto' language of international communication for the forseeable future. If dd lived in the UK, I would make sure that she was learning Spanish and Chinese"

Did you mix me up with somebody else? I am certainly not happy with the deplorable attitude towards language learning my dd picked up at school and am doing everything I can to counteract it.

Bonsoir Wed 15-May-13 13:48:23

I agree that daily lessons, in the medium of the language being taught using mother-tongue teachers, is the way to go. My DD is at a bilingual French-English school and has lessons in both every day (3/4 of the day in French, doing the French NC, and 1/4 of the day in English). Next year she will start Spanish as her first foreign language and will have 30 minutes per day.

BadLad Wed 15-May-13 14:32:12

I don't think the problem is laziness. When I came to choose my A'Levels, I could only choose three subjects, and as I was interested in science, I did the maths, chemistry and physics as they fitted in with my career ambitions at the time.

I would have loved to continue with the French I did at GCSE, but something had to give. I resent any implication that I might be lazy - I worked very hard for my A'Levels.

On the other hand, not having good English is likely to put most young Western Europeans at a considerable disadvantage in their careers. So they presumably have more chances to study it at school.

Certainly they have one advantage over English speakers looking to learn languages. It being the most commonly-studied second language, the materials for learning English are excellent compared to nearly every other language. When I arrived in Japan, I had to use some tedious book about business Japanese, as there were so few alternatives. I'm at a high intermediate level now, however. But if you doubt this point, look at the material available next time you're in a bookshop. Even French and Spanish is utterly dwarfed by the range of books for learning English.

JenaiMorris Wed 15-May-13 15:07:29

I think we worry ao much about perfect grammar and so on that we are afraid to open our mouths.

I must have worked with hundreds of people from primarily France, Spain and Italy, few of whom spoke perfect English but they did speak English fluently.

It is better to sound like Officer Crabtree than to not try at all, basically.

JenaiMorris Wed 15-May-13 15:08:45

I can speak English. Honest hmm

IloveJudgeJudy Wed 15-May-13 15:28:01

I haven't read the whole thread, but on the whole, I agree with secretmusicteacher. What language would a UK person learn first? French/German/Spanish/ Eastern European? For a non-UK person (or at least a European person), the obvious language for them is English. It is very easy to listen to English in Western Europe, at least. It is all around. I speak French and German and to keep my skills up is very hard. I really have to dig around to find some language stuff.

Pop music is mostly in English. Films are mostly in English (unless you go to a very small cinema or sometimes they are shown on BBC 4), whereas if you are non-UK, there is english everywhere. They hear it in loads of places.

Also, we are, as someone else said, very willing to understand someone whose English is not very good. We make allowances and don't insist on their pronouncing it completely properly. I have also very often found that when I'm abroad on the first day, when I have not quite got my accent in, people are very rude and insist on speaking back to me in English, even though I have addressed them in their language. I would never dream of doing that, even if my French/German is better than their English. Perhaps I should start grin.

Once there is concensus in the UK on which language we all should learn, then I'm sure that we will be as good as any other populations.

Also, if people from different countries get together, they all speak English, don't they? They do at international companies and they do, even if they are on a French campsite, speak English as their common tongue. What chance do our DC have?

I also agree about the grammar thing. Even though I'm 50, I really only learnt my grammar through learning MFL at school.

Peetle Wed 15-May-13 15:37:01

I blame the way languages are taught - at least when I was at school. I was drilled with verb declensions, fancy rules for grammar and complex constructions all of which baffled me so I was rubbish at languages at school. I'm sure that had I been taught languages in a more relaxed manner; concentrating on vocabulary and stock phrases before moving on to the technical details I would have done a lot better.

I scraped a pass at French 'O' level but having visited Geneva for work a few times (on my own, so I either spoke French or went hungry) and got over the initial fear of making a fool of myself. I'm sure my French is dreadful but I have a reasonable vocabulary if almost no grammar and can understand a fair amount.

NapaCab Wed 15-May-13 15:53:47

It's because English-speakers keep on meeting German families who want to speak English...grin

If they had met e.g. a Spanish family who spoke no English then they might have had a chance to practice their language skills!

Seriously though, the ubiquity of English makes it very hard to avoid and harder to immerse yourself in a foreign language.

When I lived in Germany, I had to practically force people to speak German to me until eventually I became fluent enough where they stopped doing that. If you're an English speaker and want to learn a foreign language you have to be either in an isolated environment where no English is spoken (rare) or very, very determined and refuse to engage in English with people who want to speak English to you. You have to go out of your way to avoid English and that can be lonely when it's so easy to make friends in your own language.

And I say that as someone who has learned 5 languages to varying degrees of fluency so I think it's a good thing, I just think that English speakers are rarely forced to make an effort.

NapaCab Wed 15-May-13 15:56:39

None of those 5 languages are in any way useful or have added any value to my career, by the way, they're just nice accomplishments for me personally.

That's the other problem for English speakers. Learning a language doesn't help our careers or improve our employment prospects particularly.

superfluouscurves Wed 15-May-13 15:58:46

Apologies Cory - was rushing - did indeed mix you up with someone else!

superfluouscurves Wed 15-May-13 16:01:26

Sorry - still rushing - but was just trying to make the point that English may not be the lingua-franca of international communication in years to come - Spanish and Chinese are on the rise!

Xenia Wed 15-May-13 16:14:22

I did not mean sixth formers were lazy to give up their language. I meant that children dropping out at 14 from languages because knitting GCSE is much easier or whatever are often being lazy. You used to have to have a foreign language to go to university in the UK - it was regarded as a basic requirement that bright children learn another language. My children have gone to private selective schools and no one does not do a foreign language. 100% of the children do a GCSE in one language usually French and many do German or Spanish as well and some do that plus latin and even Greek if they are really into languages but certainly they all do one.

it is not just about usefulness when you grow up it is about brain development. It is about stretching yourself. I also learned a lot of my grammar in French and German lessons as English lessons in the UK then and probably now did not teach grammar in the same way and as thoroughly.

So I would force your children to do at least one foreign language GCSE if they have an above average IQ. if all the best schools make them then I suspect children at not such goods schools would benefit from copying what works in the best private schools and grammars.

Mind you I could have done with Spanish. Where my island is that is the language and most people do not speak English. However with French and German I can often work out what Spanish means so even there the language helps.

Quite a lot of scientists and doctors are moving to English - research papers (the French hate this), pharmaceutical publications, teaching of medicine all over Europe.

I agree with porto we don't learn it early enough.

I was also thinking about this the other day, chatting to someone I know who claims to speak five modern languages fluently. Now, I am not knocking his abilities because I am stunned by anyone who can come even close to fluency in one second language, let alone four - I can't. But, I did notice how he's quite happy to be not quite perfect in his English. And this is a man who's lectured in English literature at Oxford. But he just doesn't feel bothered by the fact that in casual conversation, he slips into non-idiomatic phrases or that in an email, he might make quite a basic grammatical error.

The way we were taught languages, we were told this was unthinkable and made to feel if we couldn't be perfect, it was pointless to try to speak. We were always taught to try to speak in complete sentences and never to muddle through.

I think personally this stops me being so confident. I used to have quite decent enough French as a child, good enough to cope because I wasn't too bothered about getting it wrong. Last time I went to France, I found it so much harder, not just because I'd forgotten things but because I kept struggling and instead of going with an approximation that'd be understandable, I'd be worrying what the difference between subjunctive and conditional was.

It just occurred to me chatting to this guy (German, if it matters, since people have mentioned German language teaching on the thread), that it didn't even occur to him to apologize for basic slips, he just saw it as a normal part of being a second-language speaker and he expected me to follow and understand.

Wibblypiglikesbananas Wed 15-May-13 17:11:47

I studied three languages at university and have had various jobs using one, two or three of these. I agree with the posters who say that there is often perceived to be little point in learning the languages traditionally offered in UK schools as English is effectively the world's lingua franca.

However - where does that leave us with regard to Mandarin and Spanish? Why not teach these rather than the more traditional (and arguably less useful) French and German (Spanish is obviously on the rise)?

I'd also echo posters who have said that as English language teaching is so bad in the UK, as a consequence, it is harder for British students to move onto a second or third language. All my knowledge of grammatical terminology comes from my German studies, not through learning English!

I think the key is early immersion in other useful world languages and teaching to be carried out by experts. I've lost count of the number of languages teachers I've met over the years who couldn't string a sentence together accurately in English, let alone in French or German. I know of one French teacher who was bilingual English/French and made to teach German with no prior knowledge of the subject! Needless to say, his pupils didn't do well. And that is not to castigate all teachers, before anyone jumps on me. That's just my experience - and it's really sad to see children 'learning French', when actually they're just parroting the badly accented holiday French of their primary school teacher.

mizu Wed 15-May-13 17:14:36

I have been a TEFL/ESOL teacher for 17 years now and it still amazes me how so many of my students can speak 2 or 3 languages before English. I think it is a shame that we don't do more languages but as someone wrote on here before it does take a lot of work and motivation to learn a language and converse in it confidently. The motivation for a lot of my learners is that they need English for life and work.

I think it is important for kids these days to be learninig Spanish and maybe Chinese too - and Arabic?! Biased maybe as my DH's 1st language is Arabic - but it is very widely spoken.

I do think we will travel more for work in the future so we need to disregard our negative attitude to other languages - they understand English so why should I bother?! and open up the schoool curriculum to more time on languages.

wherearemysocka Wed 15-May-13 17:23:29

If nothing else, learning a foreign language helps you understand your native language better and why therefore you shouldn't say 'should of' or 'if I was rich'. It's an intellectual exercise as much as anything else, with a bonus of being able to go abroad and actually use it.

wol1968 Wed 15-May-13 17:23:32

My grandparents were Polish. My two brothers both learned to speak Polish to a reasonable standard but I missed out, as we moved out of my grandparents' house when I was about a year old, and I was also later diagnosed with a moderate hearing impairment. I have never felt very confident with languages. I have a good memory for vocabulary, got an A at O-level French and can still make out enough written French to find my way around shops, restaurants and so forth, but having a hearing impairment really screws my ability to make out the spoken language, whether French or Spanish or Polish. confused There are no 'reasonable adjustments' in real-life language use, unfortunately.

I chickened out and studied Latin at A-level instead. Useful? Well...some of the vocabulary sort-of overlaps in French and Spanish. And you get a good overall grasp of differences in grammar systems. But I don't think I'll be getting a job across the Channel any time soon. grin

thanksamillion Wed 15-May-13 17:25:58

I think that there is a lack of expectation in the UK ie if you speak more than one language you're looked on as some kind of rare genius, whereas in most other countries it's completely the norm.

I live in Moldova and DD1 who is 8 is already learning French (schooling is done in Romanian) and will start Russian in two years time. English is also fairly widely taught and all 6th form and University students have to demonstrate competent English. Even with that you're nothing special grin

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams Wed 15-May-13 17:32:13

I do think part of it's that the timetable just isn't set up for them. I was doing sciences for A level, and it was just assumed by the science teachers that I'd drop Spanish after AS. I didn't, but some of my friends did. The majority of people doing a language at A level wanted to do languages at university.

At university I had an awful lot of friends from all over Europe, all speaking English fluently (well, strong accents and odd phrasing in some cases but others were perfect). They all had worked hard at English because they wanted to come to university here and their schools recognised and supported that. If I'd said at school "I want to go to university in Spain to do Biology" for example, I don't think they'd have had a clue what to do with me!

Oh, and I agree with Xenia about the GCSEs at selective schools. When we were given the blocks with our options in, the first block was French, German, Spanish or Italian, no other choice.

Interestingly, we were taught Latin and French in the first year, then picked up German and Ancient Greek in the second, and Spanish and Italian in the third. I remember us all saying how easy Spanish and Italian were- we'd been well drilled in the grammar in the other languages by that point grin

MrsSalvoMontalbano Wed 15-May-13 17:33:09

Chinese is a red herring (no pun intended) - the level you can get to by learning it 2 hours a week at school in this country is of no practical use - it is just a gimmick to get gullible parents to think their child has some big advantage in the world of the future. Only if the child has one or more Chinese relatives in the home will they make more than elementary progress. English is so well entrenched now it is the de facto international language of business, and the influence continued to increase.
I used to work for a French company - the French are as xenopobic as it is possible to be, but it was the de facto international method of communication when we had meetings or conf calls with people of more than one nationality for purely practical reasons. I love languages and am training as a language teacher, but realistically the best we can hope for in school is to enthuse the children and imbue an interest. For the languages to be of practical use they need to continue after school and immerse themselves in the language, preferably by living in the country for a while.

moondog Wed 15-May-13 17:35:01

It's simple. There is no burning urge or need to learn another language in the UK.

DH's brother started off learning Chinese doing an hour a week. He is now at university there are acceptable fluent.

Not so much of a gimmick, necessarily, though he was in Russia and they do teach languages differently there as far as I understand.

Bonsoir Wed 15-May-13 17:36:27

"I love languages and am training as a language teacher, but realistically the best we can hope for in school is to enthuse the children and imbue an interest."

Why are you so defeatist? My DSSs, in France, speak quite good Spanish despite "only" learning it at school for 5 and 3 years respectively. DSS2 went to Spain earlier this year and felt confident in his Spanish exchange family.

MrsSalvoMontalbano Wed 15-May-13 17:36:50

And yes, lol at the 'rare genius' - my French colleagues were nonplussed when I initiated conversations in French, and brought people in to see this oddity of an English person who spoke fluent French grin

MrsSalvoMontalbano Wed 15-May-13 17:38:16

Errr, Bonsoir, I am in England, you are in France, that is precisely the point....

moondog Wed 15-May-13 17:38:16

I used to live in Russia and worked in a provincial university some 15 years ago when most of the students had never conversed with a native English speaker. Their English was unbelievable good at every level.

I remember helping to judge a dram competition and marvelling at all of these 17 and 18 year olds knocking off 'The Importance of Being Ernest' like it was a nursery rhyme.

Bonsoir Wed 15-May-13 17:39:25

LOL MrsSalvoMontalbano I know the feeling. And then, when they meet my family (parents, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins) they find out we all speak French (from bilingual to fluent to conversational). No-one understands how this can be true!

Bonsoir Wed 15-May-13 17:40:23

There is no special reason for French DCs to be better at Spanish than English DCs. Apart from the teaching.

moondog Wed 15-May-13 17:42:21

Also cachet of certain languages. Noone marvels at the Bangladeshi labourer who moves to Saudi and has to master Arabic to get by.

When we lived in Moscow I remember going to an Indian restaurant and talking to the waiters. They were medical students who came to study as cheaper than in Western Europe or America.
But firstly, they had to learn Russian.
Mindblowing but they thought nothing of it.

MrsSalvoMontalbano Wed 15-May-13 17:47:33

The language teaching is undoubtedly better in France, but that is partly because the students, their parents, the government are all hugely motivated by necessity, since the French cannot just bowl up to a meeting in Spain etc and assume their clients etc speak French, whereas there is a complacency among the English, since wherever they go, wherever they want to do business - there will be numerous people only to eager to practise their English...

MrsSalvoMontalbano Wed 15-May-13 17:48:57

many European countries now offer degree courses (eg medicine, dentistry..) in English. Spanish? Mandarin? Not so much...

cenicienta Wed 15-May-13 18:07:19

I was "discontinued" from French at school at age 12 because the teacher felt I showed "no promise". I'm now fluent in Spanish and have bilingual children.

At my school there really was no motivation to learn a foreign language, there didn't seem to be any point and all the talk about participles left me yawning.

When it came to needing to learn a new language for my work it was completely different, I loved learning Spanish in a different country because it was so much more real. I noticed at language school that other Europeans learned much quicker than the Brits, simply because the Brits seemed to spend so much time getting past the embarassment factor of actually speaking in a foreign language. The Swiss for eg just plough straight in regardless of making mistakes.

I love that my dcs now change the settings on their DVDs to watch them in a new language, then repeat what they hear! They just assume they'll learn more languages as they get older and have no fear about sounding silly or getting it wrong.

I think generally the problem in the UK is that learning foreign languages isn't something people need to do to get ahead. It's not seen as "cool" like it is in other countries and there isn't much exposure to foreign language music or films like in other countries. Most Brits I speak to claim they "could never learn a new language"!

cory Wed 15-May-13 18:20:26

"Once there is concensus in the UK on which language we all should learn, then I'm sure that we will be as good as any other populations."

So how does that explain that young Swedes manage to learn German or French or Spanish on top of their English?

I don't know anyone in Sweden in either my own generation or in my children's generation who has not learnt at least two languages at school, and once you've timetabled the English, the choice for language no 2 is not more obvious than it is the UK.

I chose French, my brother chose German. For a third language, he chose French and I chose Spanish. Didn't make it harder at all. And there was no internet in those days, no DVDs, hardly any French, German or Spanish films on the telly and in all my years at school I never had a native speaker for a teacher. We still managed.

beatback Wed 15-May-13 18:39:50

My niece is fluent in french, spanish and italian,and is currently doing french and business studies at a RG University. It really will give her options with her future career. I think the main reason is because the medium of culture, "HOLLYWOOD films, internet and the fact of the importance of "THE CITY" for business dealings. In the past we probably had a "LET THEM LEARN " English atitude, also it is very difficult to teach foreign languages, when some kids struggle with english grammar.

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams Wed 15-May-13 18:47:57

I do think people from other countries can have a funny attitude as well though (not sure exactly what I'm getting at here, but I'll try to explain!).

I have a few Bulgarian friends at university, and they'd often asked me for interesting idioms, similes all that type of thing or to help with revision if they had a test of their English. But if I expressed the slightest interest in the Bulgarian language, they looked at me as if I'd grown two heads. I don't see why it's any different really.

I think you can have your confidence knocked too though. I have a couple of Spanish friends and as I'm pretty close to fluent we'd quite often talk in Spanish as I didn't slow them down. Then I met them with another woman one day, who kept saying she couldn't understand me and that my choice of words was odd. The thing is, I've always had South American teachers, so I use some American words and have a south American accent rather than a European one. I know she was just rude (the others said my accent is good, just american), but it really put me off for quite a while after.

JenaiMorris Wed 15-May-13 18:57:42

Lrd that's kind of what I was getting at with the Officer Crabtree reference.

Also, we're not (or weren't) taught coping strategies for when we're stuck. All those ex-colleagues of mine could say 'what is the name, the thing that looks like...' They could have really heavy accents, get their grammar a bit wrong, not know the word for every thing in the known world and yet they were fluent.

JenaiMorris Wed 15-May-13 19:01:35

" The Swiss for eg just plough straight in regardless of making mistakes"

Yes, yes ceni

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 19:19:09

again, as with music education, there are two different schools of thought.

One group says "fluency and function first" - learn phrases, communicate, do anything to make it have a function and to know what to do in real time if you get stuck. Let the grammar follow. (for music, substitute "notation and theory" for "grammar"). Any functional communication abroad is a life experience and a lucky few may use it as a springboard to become fluent.

The other group says "learning rules of French Grammar is a gymnasium for the mind and a really hard but worthwhile pursuit - we will be less intelligent if we don't conjugate verbs and we should stick to French because it has the second greatest body of world literature to study". (for music, substitute "learning the theory of music and concentrating on great works from the canon" and "if we don't learn standard notation" ).

Whilst the "let's rote-learn grammar rules first" brigade still have a voice, there won't be one coherent group making a persuasive case for more and better language learning at school.

thesecretmusicteacher Wed 15-May-13 19:23:03

Going back to the OP - would everyone agree that there is little evidence her children have made progress if they won't attempt hello and goodbye?

Perhaps we could say that in primary at least the goal should be fluency and function..... and surely learning the language of any sizeable EAL group in school creates a perfect opportunity for that and must be more important than French at that age.....

sorry to sound horrid again, but I do suspect that we have far too many French and German teachers..... and very few teachers of the languages spoken by lots of children in the school itself.

Laquila Wed 15-May-13 19:27:03

I would say that in primary school the most basic goal should be awareness of other countries, cultures and languages. Once that's in place then I think somehow demystifying the teaching of a foreign language and making it into an everyday, fun occurrence should be the ideal.

For me personally, the biggest reason I have always been crap at languages is my very poor hearing sad

Actually I'd love a chance to do a language (German I think, then I needn't bother to find translations for Rammstein songs grin) But I reckon I would need 1-2-1 tuition to ensure I heard it all properly. Can't afford that at present, but's it on the wish list for the future.

DD is doing French and German at secondary (Yr 8). Only a few of the children are doing more than one language, so I'm hoping DD gets fluent in these as languages will be an asset for the future. However, she wants to drop French in favour of Spanish and continue with the German. She does enjoy that.

NapaCab Wed 15-May-13 19:51:52

Polkadots: that's very similar to my experiences learning languages. Most of the time people assume you are just an idiot English-speaker who can't speak anything other than English and are shocked when you do. I've had Swedish people stand in amazement on hearing me speak Swedish saying they can't understand why I would bother to learn it (ans: because I had the opportunity to at university and loved the sound of the language)

In general though, most people just think you're wasting your time learning a language if you're an English speaker or are just some eccentric oddball and try to humour you about it.

As for English not being spoken so much outside of Europe, as someone said upthread, well that's true but what language would help you to communicate in e.g. East Asia? If you're in Japan, no-one is going to appreciate you trying out your few words of Mandarin. Ditto for Korea. And even in China itself, dialects vary hugely. The world still needs a lingua franca and regardless what people say, that language is still English. I wish it were Spanish then I would have an opportunity to practice my very basic Spanish every time I travel abroad and would be fluent in no time!

BadMissM Wed 15-May-13 19:52:52

This is so bad that my DD (born in France) refused to speak French any more as it was 'uncool', and has now forgotten most of her first language.

I learned French at school, then ended up marrying a Frenchman, excellent for language learning! I didn't do it at university, but mianitained it...

I enjoy being able to speak 2 languages fluently.... But it takes work to do this, maintaining the two languages.... and the cultures that go alongside them...

What Polkadots said is true. DD went to Germany in March with the school, and found that every time she and her friends tried to speak German, they had Germans speaking English back at her. She got frustrated.

honeytea Wed 15-May-13 20:02:03

I think that maybe it is because there is such a huge focus on small children learning to read and write.

I live in Sweden and the kids here have English lessons before they can read and write in Swedish. I was reading a thread on mumsnet a few months ago where a mother was outraged that her 5 year old was having French lessons before they could properly read and write in English, the poster had missed the point that small children learn languages so easilly and it is very sensible to teach 3/4/5 year olds to speak French rather than pushing them to learn to read and write English.

Decoy Wed 15-May-13 20:02:51

I didn't go abroad at all as a child, we enjoyed holidays in the UK. Foreign languages and holidays were another world, for other people with more money. It didn't occur to me that they could ever be useful at all.

It was also too late to start languages from scratch at 11. Would have been much easier to absorb if quite a lot younger.

niceguy2 Wed 15-May-13 20:06:27

There are multiple reasons:

1) The default language of the business world is English. Therefore in every country where English is not the primary language there is an acceptance that English will be very VERY useful to you in later life. The same is not true for us. We don't accept that learning for example German will have the same degree of usefulness.

2) Because the default language is English, other countries are bombarded by it. Music, films, TV & Internet. Much is dominated by American influence. So kids learn English songs, watch english movies with subtitles, surf websites and get a lot of English results. The point here is that they are exposed to it a lot more than we are exposed to their languages.

3) Attitudes. We're a bit lazy. We have the common language, everyone speaks pigeon English so we think sod it.

4) Our geography means we don't get a lot of exposure to another language. Take for example my fiancee who grew up in Eastern Europe. She of course knows her native language but also Russian because of the old USSR influence. So now she's effectively tri-lingual. English people are usually impressed by this but it's accepted as normal in her home country. You are expected to be at least bi-lingual.

Personally I don't blame schools. They can only do so much. The rest of society isn't valuing learning French/German/Spanish so it's no surprise really that our kids are failing to learn it.

Pollaidh Wed 15-May-13 20:21:42

Absolutely true that latin/french root languages seem to be valued more than Eastern European/Asian languages. My child is French-English bilingual and we are often complimented in public by people I am very sure wouldn't consider it to be so 'wonderful' to be English-Punjabi bilingual for example; the latter is often seen as a problem rather than a valuable skill!

A big difference between the UK and much of Europe (and increasingly Asia and East Asia) is that in the UK language skills are for linguists, whereas elsewhere all the scientists and engineers must be fluent in English (and other languages too), and language training continues up to university level, alongside the science. It is incredibly had to find British scientists and engineers who also speak a European foreign language fluently, I know because I've tried.

In the UK it is almost impossible to get language training whilst doing a degree in a different discipline, unless you enroll in costly nightschools etc, and which you might not have time to do alongside a typical 9-6 science course.

Rowlers Wed 15-May-13 20:42:16

I am a languages teacher (don't shoot me down in flames) and I have found this thread fascinating.
I think there are many reasons we are "bad" at language learning in this country, most of which have already been covered here.
I do think that we have an uphill struggle
- not enough curriculum time,
- not starting early enough,
- primary provision being non-compulsory,
- primary languages teaching carried out by a teacher who used to go on holiday to e.g. Brittany,
- parents (sorry) who say at parents' evening in front of their DCs "I can't see the point in learning a language",
- MFL being perceived as much harder than other subjects (by students and before you disagree because your DC finds it easy, I say that as someone who has discussed the issue with a wide range of students over 20 years of teaching)
- English = universal language, very widely spoken in our neighbouring EU countries
- the National Curriculum dictating WHAT and HOW MFL is taught
- government unable to decide if MFL learning is important or not and if so, unwilling to actually support it in schools
- also, there is, I think a very British unwillingness to shed ones inhibitions and TRY. I have witnessed language lessons in Germany where EVERY child appears to be completely comfortable with the idea of speaking English in front of their classmates. Here, so many children are extremely uncomfortable about doing so. And wanting to do well?Being seen as keen and enthusiatic? It's social death.

With regard to the question of which languages should be learnt / taught; this is in itself one of the problems - some students take to French beautifully, others hate it and understand the rules of German much more easily, some would like to learn Mandarin e.g. but who is going to teach it?

Is MFL important?
In my view, no more or less so than any other subject.
We can't ALL learn the same shit.

muminlondon Wed 15-May-13 21:23:12

thesecretmusicteacher 'I do suspect that we have far too many French and German teachers..... and very few teachers of the languages spoken by lots of children in the school itself.'

We don't actually have enough MFL teachers generally since they were taken off the national curriculum. And as for Slavonic/Asian languages - no room for them now that Gove has decided which are the only official languages for KS2: French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin or Ancient Greek. That will probably carry over to secondary school then.

Not even Arabic, Portuguese or Russian which might be community languages in some areas, and spoken widely in countries with important trade and cultural links.

jenai - YY, we need the coping strategies.

Xenia Wed 15-May-13 21:46:38

Yes, it has been the done thing in the UK to have French as your GCSE plus perhaps German and/or Latin (with Spanish as the second one as it is perceived as a soft option easier than German and Latin). A sliding scale of people's views of which languages count and it will be based on 50 years of what the universities required for entrance and our cultural heritage in the UK. Thus is the best employers expect to see a language like French on your GCSE list then best to make sure your children have it and if most of the best selective schools will be making the children all do French then you will not really go too wrong if you follow what those best schools are doing.

muminlondon Wed 15-May-13 22:26:38

CILT/CfBT did their annual survey of language trends in March. Some interesting but worrying points:

- 23% of primary schools have no staff with foreign language competence beyond GCSE level
- most primaries are offering French or a lesser extent Spanish.
- there's been an overall decline in the independent sector as well as state schools although more take-up in sixth form

I had a quick look at independent schools, Xenia. Some have a very low take-up of languages for GCSE. St Paul's Girls/City of London Girls put fewer girls in for language GCSEs last year than state comprehensives Fulham Cross or Coombe Girls. Kingston Grammar School has more pupils doing PE GCSE than languages.

overdue1 Wed 15-May-13 22:33:46

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams Wed 15-May-13 23:42:06

muminlondon is that just a number or the does it show the proportion of the cohort? We had no choice but to do a GCSE modern language, and it's the same for the vast majority of independent school pupils I know.

Although our school did have some odd rules... I wasn't allowed to do separate sciences, the two classical languages and one modern language as it wasn't broad enough. I did separate sciences, one classical language and two modern and that was apparently fine confused

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams Wed 15-May-13 23:50:58

Sorry, that sounds a bit abrupt! I don't mean I don't believe you, I just wonder whether it's a smaller year group size, but actually a higher proportion take the language IYSWIM.

cenicienta Thu 16-May-13 02:07:18

Rowlers: also, there is, I think a very British unwillingness to shed ones inhibitions and TRY. I have witnessed language lessons in Germany where EVERY child appears to be completely comfortable with the idea of speaking English in front of their classmates. Here, so many children are extremely uncomfortable about doing so. And wanting to do well? Being seen as keen and enthusiatic? It's social death.

I think this is the main point! My dcs go to a non English language school where English is taught as a 2nd language from 3 years old. It is very badly taught and the Engllish teacher has a terrible accent but the kids all copy her enthusiastically and can't wait to come to our house to play to show off their English!

Imagine this scenario the other way around. Would British kids actively seek out the foreign kids in their school in order to practise another language? I think not!

NapaCab Thu 16-May-13 02:54:12

Did you say you were in Spain, cenicienta? That's interesting to hear that the kids locally are so keen on speaking English. It must have become cool in recent years because I have two Spanish friends who grew up in bilingual households due to having an English-speaking parent (one in Seville and one in Madrid) and both said they were made fun of at school for speaking English and for pronouncing English loan-words correctly.

That really stuck in my mind because it was the way people at our school treated kids who were bilingual e.g. in French and English. There was a little envy but also this idea that they were being pretentious in using French loan-words correctly or using French slang sometimes. I found it interesting that Spanish kids had the same attitude to kids in English-speaking countries compared to e.g. Germans who, in my experience, value bilingualism and liked to learn how to pronounce foreign words.

Interesting to hear things are maybe changing...!

sleepywombat Thu 16-May-13 06:29:47

We're a lot better at languages than the Aussies!

I have to say a lot of my Spanish & French friends aren't particularly good at English, but obviously that's just anecdotal & languages are my thing (I've always been rubbish at Maths & Science, on the other hand).

I went to a comprehensive & felt the language teaching was pretty good. I learned French, Spanish & Latin & took the option of gcse Italian. We had to do at least one language at GCSE & they have the same policy now (15 yrs later). I only wished that I didn't HAVE to do a technology or Maths & could've done another language instead!

My mother forced me to go on a lot of exchanges from quite an early age, which I hated, but I learned more from them than probably a year in school! I think that they are very important (& perhaps why the Aussies aren't great at languages - they're so far from everywhere else) & maybe why the OP's German friends learned so quickly. I worry with all the health & safety/risk assessments, exchanges are becoming more rare in the UK?

muminlondon Thu 16-May-13 06:45:30

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams that's percentage entered - e.g. 90% of the year entered for languages at Fulham Cross, 81% of St Paul's Girls entered, 29% entered at Kingston Grammar. Take-up at independent schools is still probably better overall, especially in sixth form, but my point is that it has been in decline there too.

Bunbaker Thu 16-May-13 06:59:34

DD is in year 8 and in the top set for French. I was good at languages at school and am horrified at the way she is being taught. I did O levels and we were taught far more rigorous grammar rules and how to conjugate verbs in the first year at high school.

DD tells me of the appalling way some of the other pupils in her class pronounce words as if they aren't even trying. For example avez - she says half the class pronounce it as aviss despite being corrected countless times by the teacher. It is as if they don't/can't/won't listen.

Even DD thinks that learning French is pointless. Unless we can overcome that hurdle I don't think we will ever be able to produce a nation of bilingual speakers.

Weegiemum Thu 16-May-13 07:21:55

My dc are bilingual due to their education. They are at Gaelic school, and all teaching (apart from English), is in Gaelic.

It's not anything like a major language, but they have it and the speed with which dd1 has picked up French is astonishing.

Languages need to be taught younger, and the total immersion method is fantastic.

muminlondon Thu 16-May-13 07:36:49

Just checked, 78% entered for language GCSE at Eton in 2012, although 100% at Westminster. Does that explain the stances on Europe of our prime minister and deputy respectively?!

LaVolcan Thu 16-May-13 07:47:22

Does that explain the stances on Europe of our prime minister and deputy respectively?!

More to do with Clegg's personal circumstances I think. A Dutch mother, a Spanish wife, descendent of someone of Russian and German origin.

muminlondon Thu 16-May-13 07:59:52

... And why Nick Clegg prefers to send Antonio to London Oratory (97% entered for languages) than among the lazy bankers at Eton! ...

cheaspicks Thu 16-May-13 08:03:26

cory Is what you say about Swedes being expected to learn English and at least one other foreign language true for all levels of Swedish society? My (German) nephew is learning Spanish in addition to English at Gymnasium (grammar school equivalent) and is quite confident at communicating in both languages. I would imagine though that the expectations for children at a Realschule (where kids go when they are deemed not academic enough for Gymnasium) are more modest in terms of learning a second foreign language but that the importance of learning English is still stressed. I don't know anything about how the Swedish school system is structured though. Is it similar to in Germany?

I teach English to 4-6 year olds in German kindergartens. Most of their parents learned English in the GDR from teachers who barely spoke the language, a lot didn't go to Gymasium and I often hear comments like "my dc keeps teaching me things they've learned in your lessons". Still, I would bet that when their children come home after a couple of lessons with me (40 min once a week) saying "my name is Max, what's your name?", that the parents respond with "oh, my name is Heike. Wow, are your English lessons fun?" How many British parents would respond to "je m'appelle Tom. Comment tu t'appelles?" with "oh, I was always rubbish at French," or "I've never needed French"?

And I agree with secretmusicteacher that for most people, "I've never needed French" is true. I did A level French, but I can't remember the last time I needed to speak it to someone. If I hadn't moved to Germany then I could probably say the same thing about Gerrman. Otoh, I have a friend here in small-town Germany who is an estate agent, doesn't speak good English, but regularly needs to use it because he has the occasional immigrant client who hasn't learnt German yet, or because he has bought a guitar manual which has a long introduction written in English, etc.

TheBigJessie Thu 16-May-13 09:44:53

Well, as a result of German AS-level, I've earned £12.30 (which I declared to JSA by the way). I haven't earned anything from A-level Biology or Maths, either directly, or indirectly!

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 10:16:39

"we simply don't learn our own language properly, which makes it very very hard to learn a new one"

I know you said you teach languages but have to say I disagree with this (as someone who is fluent in three languages).

English and French are similar enough (re sentence structure & vocabulary) that properly knowing the grammar of one could help understand the other but this is not necessary (or even desirable) when learning a language that is based on a completely different logic.

Imho and ime, it is best to learn a new language like a baby, without translating or making comparisons between languages.

Bonsoir Thu 16-May-13 10:19:16

"Imho and ime, it is best to learn a new language like a baby, without translating or making comparisons between languages."

Except that this is not how languages interact with one another in the brain.

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 10:40:14

I wasn't talking about languages interacting in the brain, but the person learning a new one consciously comparing it with and translating it to his native language.

How exactly do you feel that languages "interact" with each other in the brain?

My baby niece is currently very consciously comparing her two languages. But that might I guess be because she's not in a bilingual society, but a mostly monolingual one with a mum who speaks something else.

That can't be very unusual, though.

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 10:48:54

Assuming that your baby niece has never studied English grammar, her "comparing" is probably not what I was talking about re sentence structure & grammar.

DD & DS are trilingual (from birth) and they would also do all sorts of comparisons like "Daddy moon, nanny lune, mummy ay while pointing at the moon, for example. That has nothing to do with what holmes said & I replied to.

honeytea Thu 16-May-13 10:51:50

cheaspicks Sweden doesn't have selective schools, there are a couple of boarding schools but the vast majority of children go to state schools.

In my experience people in all sorts of jobs speak perfect English, you can speak to a bus driver in English as easilly as a §dentist.

The only time I have not been able to communicate in English was when I was in hospital giving birth, the dr giving me and epidural couldn't speak English, but he wasn't Swedish.

Ah, you didn't actually mention that bit!

Yes, now you've said that I'm sure you're right. What she does tends to be more along the lines of trying to work out why there's one word in English for several different ones in German. I think it's fascinating.

She also tries out putting verbs in non-English places but she seems to think it is funny so I am guessing she knows it is 'wrong'. I can't be very sure, though, as I don't see her every day so she could well just be laughing at silly people who don't understand German.

Bonsoir Thu 16-May-13 10:56:00

I don't "feel" that languages interact with one another in the brain - they do. Once babyhood has passed, it is impossible for the mature brain to learn a language in the same way. There is a conscious reference language (or languages) always.

JenaiMorris Thu 16-May-13 10:56:07

The little French girl I au paired for spoke fluent English, but couldn't translate.

I imagine she could of course as she grew up, but at five she could (it seemed) express herself as well in English as she could in French (or at least as well in English as your average 5yo English child). The two languages seemed to work like parallel operating systems.

It's odd, that, isn't it jenai?

DH is similar. He can translate and he will, but he finds it very hard.

It is however thought to be incorrect that there are fixed differences between the way babies' brains learn language and the way older children/adults do. It used to be thought that there was an obvious difference between early and late bilinguals, but now, not so much. As I understand it.

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 11:27:39

"Once babyhood has passed, it is impossible for the mature brain to learn a language in the same way. There is a conscious reference language (or languages) always."

I have to respectfully disagree - I started learning English after primary school (~ age 11) and am effortlessly fluent in it, without any translating to/from my native language. When I'm speaking English, I think in it.

I was taught English after primary school (~ age 11), by native speakers who didn't speak a word in my mother tongue. We were actively discouraged from translating and were only allowed to have English-English dictionaries. When English grammar was taught, there was no effort whatsoever to find similarities in our native language.

I think you will find that this is the best (the only?) way to learn a foreign language that has no common roots with your own.

On the other hand, I started learning French in my late 20s and there, I am aware that English has been my reference language. That is probably because (1) I have had much less formal training in French than in English, and (2) English and French are quite similar in sentence structure, so referencing and even translating between them is not difficult.

It must depend on individuals, too, I think?

Some people are more inclined to compare things anyway - I'm talking adults - and others aren't. And some people are capable of forgetting how to speak their mother tongue whereas others don't. It's obviously a lot more variable than we used to think.

People have said various times on this thread that being a translator is badly paid. It often is. Lots of translators settle for peanuts and moaning instead of doing something about it. I'm a translator and while I may not be the most entrepreneurial person out there, I'm doing all right at it. Highly specialised translators in less common languages with more of a go-getting mentality can make staggering sums.

Language teaching in this country seems to suffer from not being thought useful enough - by the government, not by teachers.

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 11:40:20

And re "I don't "feel" that languages interact with one another in the brain - they do."

I asked because I didn't understand what you mean by this, since languages can't interact in the brain or outside.

Do you mean brain systems interacting as we learn a new language?

cheaspicks Thu 16-May-13 12:06:05

honeytea thanks for answering my question about Swedish schools. Cory seemed to be making the point that Swedes learn not only English to fluency, but also one or more additional foreign languages, and I was wondering whether that was true for the general Swedish population, or possibly predominately confined to the highly educated, academically inclined sector. Ime in Germany no-one would question the importance of learning English, but I'm not sure that my friends who have never moved away from their hometown would value fluency in French any more than the average Brit seems to.

PolkadotsAndMoonbeams Thu 16-May-13 12:10:52

Thank you muminlondon. I'm surprised it's so low at some schools! Mind you, it was compulsory for us, so I suppose I'm just used to everybody doing a least one language. It's quite hard for me to think of people not doing a language at all past year 8/9, it seems very young to just give up on it!

honeytea Thu 16-May-13 12:19:39

cheaspicks I think the 3rd language is across all educational levels. My dp is a lorry driver and he speaks perfect English, decent spanish and some German and Finnish. There is not so much of a gap between the classes in Sweden, people working in jobs that would be seen as working class in the UK go to watch opera and go to art exhibitions and see the importance of languges just as much as those with more education.

cheaspicks Thu 16-May-13 12:21:35

Sounds fantastic smile

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 12:25:24

honeytea - That sounds like a great system.

I am told by Swedish friends that one of the reason why Swedes are fluent in English is that UK/US films & series are shown on TV in English, with Swedish subtitles.

LimburgseVlaai Thu 16-May-13 12:43:53

As CodeDAzur says, one of the reasons why Dutch people are fluent in English (and pick up other languages more easily) is because TV programmes and films are shown in the original language with subtitles. In addition, pop songs are mainly in English.

That way, you are constantly immersed in the language.

It really irritates me how, on the news and in documentaries (on UK TV), foreign languages are rendered in a voice-over rather than with subtitles.

Mumzy Thu 16-May-13 12:53:43

Apologies but not read the whole thread but wanted to add I agree with the idea it's probably because English is such a dominant language due to influence of American culture globally. My dcs learnt fluent Korean last year because they were so obsessed with the "Gangnam style" song,my Korean friend said they were word perfect and admired their accent. They had no idea what they were singing until they googled the song phrases. I remember doing he same thing in German to Nina's "99 red balloons" in the 80's. i think the key to learning languages is how relevant is it to you and if you want to access something from that culture you'll be more likely to learn the language.

wol1968 Thu 16-May-13 14:13:22

It's just occurred to me that the US may be even worse than the UK when it comes to foreign language learning. Americans can be more insular culturally due to Western influences being ubiquitous and travel abroad less easy; their education system also has many similarities with our own.

TheBigJessie Thu 16-May-13 14:15:15

Hello, FryOneFatManiac
(I was going to pm you, but my phone can't handle the pm link.)

The following encouragement may not be applicable to you, because I don't actually have a hearing problem. Throughout my childhood I thought I did, but my ears are fine- it's my brain that's the problem! I have auditory processing problems. Although I was terribly interested in languages as a child (especially German), I just assumed I was incapable of them. Very logically, I concluded that my frequent mishearing of people speaking my native language and my inability to pronounce various English consonants was going to be too big a barrier. At the least, I would need 1-1 tuition, I thought. I did Latin instead.

<Fast forward over a decade later>

I realised that I had gradually got rid of almost every speech problem, and listening is only 25% of fluency. So, under occasional pressure from my husband ("you've always wanted to learn German, Jessie. Please give it a go, and stop telling yourself you can't do things", "but you can do rrr sounds mostly now! Ten years ago you thought you never would be able to", "so, you'll have to work harder and longer to reach the same level as other people- that's not the same thing as "impossible" ") I signed up. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made! It hasn't been easy, and I don't think I'll ever be an interpreter, but then I wouldn't apply to work in an English call-centre either! It turned out my problems aren't as insurmountable as I thought they were. And now, I do think it is possible for me to get to a similar level of ability to listen in German as in English. It might take a while, but learning how to say "Reading" instead of "wedding" took a while. It was still worth it. And learning German is a lot more enjoyable!

I have to work hard at home with CDs, DVDs, mp3s and what not, but my ability to understand spoken German is a lot better than it was when I was telling myself I couldn't do it!

It'll be September soon, the start of new courses. But in the mean-time, go to a library, and have a look at their language courses. You might really like Michel Thomas, for example. His tapes/CDs are set up to simulate actual small tutorial sessions.

If this is completely irrelevant to you, I apologise. I'm just a bit evangelistic now, because I don't like the idea of anyone else feeling the way I used to!

MummytoKatie Thu 16-May-13 15:25:18

I have a question for language teachers actually? Are MFL taught to GCSE in such a way that it is possible to identify those who have a genuine flair for them?

I did very well in languages to GCSEs. Top grades in French, Spanish and Latin. But I have no aptitude at all to languages. And when I was discussing A level choices my teachers (very nicely) told me this.

Because what I am, in fact, is very very good at maths. And I was able to use mathematical ability to find the logic in the languages and so do well. (I was also motivated to be able to learn vocab lists etc.) But my accent was awful (especially for French), I had no love of the literature, no interest in the culture and instead saw the language as a puzzle to work out.

I was just wondering whether this is a flaw in early language teaching and means that while I was happily "faking it" to an A* someone else was getting a B who actually was far far better at (eg) Spanish than me? But would they have been put off by only getting a B at GCSE?

CoteDAzur Thu 16-May-13 17:41:25

I'm not sure I understand what you mean. If you didn't cheat at the exams, surely that means you weren't "faking it".

I can't say that mathematical ability has that much to do with learning a new language, either, knowing quite a few people with zero mathematical ability & knowledge who have studied languages at university level (who in fact ended up studying languages because they couldn't do any mathematics or sciences at all).

MrsSalvoMontalbano Thu 16-May-13 20:04:55

Katie - I think rather than being good at 'maths' the skill is being good at spotting patterns which is an evolutionary advantage and why it has spread in populations. That skill will enable you to excel in lots of subjects at GCSE, including maths and MFL. So, yes, at GCSE it is just another academic subject, and a bright person will manage to do well if reasonably well taught.

Bonsoir Thu 16-May-13 20:09:26

Indeed - my DP, who is excellent at maths and terrible at music, got 20/20 on his music theory exams on the piano due to great pattern spotting and retention.

I think I know what she means though ... if she was good at the patterns behind grammar but couldn't pick up the accent at all, then she might find it difficult to communicate in reality. I'm not sure it's a maths/languages skill at all, but perhaps just the teacher's way of saying that she was not as good at languages as at other subjects.

MrsSalvoMontalbano Thu 16-May-13 20:21:56

I do think there is something intuitive about languages, and that teaching can only go so far. My DS1 get better marks in French then DS2, because he can do the grammar, writing etc better. However, DS2 has a knack, he gets the intonation, the pronunciation and his oral work is better, ie he will communicate better in real life.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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!

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

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

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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!

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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