It was shocking last week to learn from a BBC Survey that there has been a 63% drop in entries for GCSE French since 2002 and a 67% drop for German.
Why don’t pupils in the UK want to learn French and German anymore?
Well, for the last 20 years or so they have been surrounded by a narrative that perpetuates an overwhelmingly negative fixed mindset. ‘Foreign languages don’t matter. Everyone speaks English’ or ‘French/German is too hard to learn.’
When my own children were at primary school (2005-2016) it was ‘compulsory’ to learn French. But as no teacher in the school was qualified to teach it, they relied on a computer programme to do the job. Hardly the most motivating way to learn a living language. And when they fell behind on some other part of the curriculum, guess what lesson was dropped that week? So from this early stage, children are getting the message ’French doesn’t matter’. Sadly, this is the mindset that many take with them to secondary school. Pity the language teacher who has to start from this base line.
Then there is the refrain ‘It’s too hard to learn French or German.’ Where has this perception come from? Why single out French and German? Can these languages really be harder than Mandarin, for which there has been a dramatic uptake at GCSE?
We are doing our children a huge disservice by feeding and supporting this fixed mindset. It makes no sense to lose the ability to communicate with our neighbours in the country geographically closest to many of us. All French people don’t speak English – why should we expect them to? And as we head towards an exit from the EU, the younger generation will need to do all it can to rebuild the bridges we are breaking down, in order to thrive with our European trading partners – of whom Germany is the most significant, importing goods worth $47 billion from the UK in 2018 (Source ie Business School).
Giving up on French and German (and often languages altogether) robs our young people of an opportunity to truly appreciate diversity, to understand another culture, and to live and work in another part of the world. Learning a language is life enhancing.
The third fixed mindset in language learning is ‘I’ll look stupid if I say something wrong.’ How have our children got the message that you can learn anything new without the risk of looking stupid? Looking stupid is part of the learning process. Our young people need to be applauded for their efforts and to hear encouraging messages: ‘You don’ t need to get it 100% right, you just need to be understood.’ Speaking the language in the classroom needs to be the norm from day 1, not something you build up to like a stage performance by learning a script and then regurgitating it word for word.
How can we change the narrative? We must replace the fixed mindset with a growth mindset.
How about this? We are privileged to live on the edge on mainland Europe, a multilingual and multicultural treasure chest. Even a smattering of ‘holiday phrases’ in another language will build respect and appreciation with those we meet. Greater fluency will enable us to dive deeper into another culture, and provide the foundation for living and working there. Knowing French and German will open doors in Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, to say nothing of French speaking Canada and 27 countries in Africa. With French we can more easily pick up Spanish and Italian; with German we can read Dutch without too much difficulty and often find it’s a shared language in the Czech Republic.
It’s estimated that 56% of the world’s population is bilingual. So the chances are that the person we want to speak to in another language has been through that learning curve themselves. They know what it’s like to have a go and make mistakes. They understand we may feel stupid. And they will generally be supportive.
I will never forget the joy on the face of one of my 14 year old pupils during an exchange visit to Mainz in Germany, where she was staying with a host family. ‘I told them a joke in German,’ she said, hardly able to contain her excitement ‘..and they laughed!’ I daresay her rendition was faltering, but that didn’t matter. Mistakes are a springboard to learning. The important thing is to have a go. This is one great way for our young people to build confidence and resilience: life enhancing qualities we all need.