Monday, 26 September 2011

Should a second language be compulsory at GCSE?

The Western Mail is reporting that CILT Cymru - the body for language teaching in Wales - believes that Welsh schoolchildren are falling behind their mainland European peers when it comes to learning a foreign language. They cite the number of pupils taking a full foreign language GCSE have fallen from 55% in 1995 to 29.6% in 2008.

As you might expect, some of the mouthbreathers that skulk around the Walesonline comments sections are pointing the finger at Welsh - probably because it's being taught at all rather than a compulsory subject at GCSE level.

For the record, I don't believe that Welsh should be compulsory post-14 in English-medium secondary schools
. I'll expand on my reasoning later in this post.

Mastering a Language

(For related and more in-depth look at the figures behind this, I seriously recommend this and other posts on Syniadau.)

It's said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. There's no reason why this cannot include second languages. Also, some people will be naturally adept at picking up languages or linguistic skills in general, which may reduce the time. The reason people become fluent in a language is because they're immersed in it. All lessons in English-medium schools are as much English lessons as the subject being taught - and they certainly add up to 10,000 hours.

It's the same situation in Welsh-medium schools with regard Welsh, except these children (in many cases) are as likely to use English outside the classroom. That's true bilingualism.

At the moment, the Welsh GCSE short course - which the majority of GCSE students take to meet their "compulsory Welsh" requirement - consists of one or two hours of contact time A WEEK (not including homework). Welsh is compulsory in the same manner as Religious Education and PE are. It's something to fill a gap in the timetable, not a serious attempt at bilingualism.

Likewise, the full GCSE might be only be 3 or 4 hours of contact time a week.

This applies as much to modern foreign languages (MFL) as it does to Welsh. The way we teach children languages - except English - doesn't prepare them for fluency. Unless students take a MFL to A-Level or beyond, it's highly unlikely that they'll have anything other than a passing familiarity with the language.

My German GCSE would probably enable me to cope on a short trip, or even pick up a little bit extra from a phrase book or quick course, but it would never prepare me for business or to live there.

Bonjour, Guten Tag, Shwmae butt

Let's look at how languages are taught in outward looking internationalist countries mainland Europe.

France – A first and second foreign language are core compulsory parts of the French curriculum at all levels. A first foreign language (usually English or Spanish) is introduced in primary schools. Some schools still have Latin and Greek as optional subjects.

Germany – A foreign language is taught at every level in the German education system - usually English. Students choose from a wider variety of second languages at secondary level, and a second language is most times mandatory - sometimes even a third language - studied to the German equivalent of A-Level. Some German gymnasium (grammar schools) still teach Latin.

Netherlands – Schools teach English from between their equivalent of Years 3 and 6. Language education is a core - usually compulsory - part of the Dutch curriculum at all levels.

– Pupils are expected to learn two languages other than Finnish from age 7 right the way through the school system. There's a strong emphasis on reading (for pleasure) and communication skills from the outset.

The English Problem

There is no question, English is the international lingua franca (for now). Welsh students have an advantage of being able to speak it natively.

The - not necessarily arrogant - assumption that all you need is a good command of English to succeed internationally has helped create a blasé
attitude to foreign languages (including Welsh, which is a foreign language from a non-Welsh perspective). Why go through the hard graft learning a second language when you can take an "easier" GCSE instead?

In a way, the fact that many European nations choose English as the first foreign language to introduce to students has created this problem. This isn't because of the UK (with the exception of London), but the United States. How else would teenagers in Germany and France consume the latest Hollywood blockbuster or RnB hit without a decent grasp of English? Of course, they have dubbing and subtitle but it's not the same. English-language culture still has a big pull.

If foreign languages are ever going to take off in Wales - or indeed, the rest of the UK - these languages also need that pull. Welsh already has it to a certain extent, though you don't need to be a fluent Welsh speaker to enjoy the latest Welsh language music or watch S4C.

What can we do?
  • Introduce a third language at a much earlier age (around year 4), presumably a Romance language like French or Spanish due to the similarities with Welsh.
  • Teach Welsh, the "third language" and English along side each other in some lessons - especially those focusing on grammar and comprehension.
  • Introduce other foreign languages in Geography and History lessons in primary school. At least one of Arabic, Mandarin or Japanese should be explored.
  • Use sports stars, especially Premier League, La Liga footballers and French-based Welsh rugby internationals, to boost language uptake amongst boys in particular. Efforts to do this so far have been half-hearted.
  • A second (or third in the case of Welsh Medium schools) language should be a compulsory full GCSE choice - but this shouldn't have to be Welsh in English medium schools. English Literature, Religious Education (except faith schools), IT and PE should be dropped as a compulsory GCSE's to compensate.
  • Widen the choice of languages available at GCSE (i.e Mandarin, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Hindi).

Proposed GCSE subject structure


Double Award Science (or Separate Sciences)
English Language
Welsh First Language (WM Schools only)
Religious Studies (Faith Schools only)
Personal & Social Education (Not Examined)

Electives (Depending on facilities available to schools)

  • One Language other than Native Language(s)
Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi

  • One Technical, Scientific or Numerate Subject
Information Technology, Separate Sciences, Design & Technology, Textiles, Engineering, Business Studies, Accountancy, Economics, Electronics, Automotive Engineering & Design, Construction, Plumbing, Carpentry, Food Science

  • One Humanities Subject
Geography, History, Business Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Law, Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Classical Studies, Media Studies, Religious Studies, Physical Education, Care & Health, Tourism & Hospitality, Food Science

  • One Creative Arts Subject
English Literature, Welsh Literature (WM Schools), Art, Graphic Design, Music, Drama, Physical Education, Design & Technology, Media Studies, Food Science

  • First Free Choice

  • Second Free Choice (English Medium non-faith Schools Only)


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