Have modern languages been shafted?

It looks like it. In 1996 the UK government announced that they would no longer fund early retirement by teachers; and one Friday in the academic year following, the Times Educational Supplement had two whole pages of vacancies for heads of Modern Languages in independent schools.

What had happened: what were they escaping?

Take two members of a family. An uncle sat French A-level in 1966. In the Sixth Form, he had read Le Misanthrope and parts of other plays by Molière; Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro and Le Barbier de Séville; Victor Hugo’s Hernani; and Racine’s Andromache.

His niece, sitting AS-level French 34 years later at a more famous school, had read Le Petit Prince. She remembers little more, but there were passages from newspapers and magazines in not very memorable French, about transport, tourism, shopping, global warming, sport, etc., most of it from the adolescent point of view.

Uncle and niece are intellectually similar: they get on well. He remembers his lessons vividly, which gave him a large vocabulary and a fascination with French; she has vague memories of a language that in the end did not interest her.

It seems that people learn a language by reading words that are memorable, written by the best writers, about things worth remembering. Mnemosyne—the goddess Memory—is, after all, the mother of the Muses.

A qui la faute? The AS-level experiment had a lot to answer for. It sealed the notion of teaching a syllabus rather than a subject. Teachers are human: they have families and private lives. Who is not tempted to take the low road?

And the ML syllabuses themselves have involved a shrinking of expectation, since the campaign was on for making subjects ‘relevant.’ Teaching down to the children was becoming—and is now—de rigueur in many people’s minds. An exposé of this error is to be found in an article by Howard Jacobson:


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