Page 20 - Independent Schools Magazine
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 Pardon my French?
Learning French still makes the grade in a digital world, according to Penny Taylor, Languages Teacher at Edge Grove School, Hertfordshire...
In late August, while I still had time to enjoy reading a daily paper, I came across an article that not only shocked me, but also made me profoundly sad. The article was not about civil wars wrecking lives or about how plastics are destroying marine life in our oceans but about
how ‘the popularity of French and German has declined again, raising fears that the ability to speak a modern foreign language is  zzling out.’* As I read on I learnt that the total number of pupils taking French GCSE had fallen by 10 per cent and there had been a 13.2 per cent drop
in the number of pupils taking German. Even the number of pupils taking Spanish GCSE
had fallen, albeit by a mere
1.8 per cent, to 91,040. What depressing reading for a sunny August morning, especially as obtaining a GCSE in a modern foreign language is part of the requirements for the EBACC.
This article got me questioning why there has been a steady decline in the learning of languages in school and society in general. Is it that there is a wider range of subjects to choose from nowadays? In contrast, a GCSE in psychology or theatre studies does sound exciting but not every school is able to offer such a wide range of subjects. Could it be because a modern foreign language is no longer a prerequisite for Oxbridge entry? Maybe, but that cannot be
the whole story. Are languages particularly dif cult to master? I don’t believe they are but there does seem to be an assumption or perhaps a misconception that learning a language is dif cult.
Learning a language is no more dif cult than mastering times tables I believe that learning a modern
foreign language is no more challenging than mastering maths, science or the humanities; however, we mustn’t forget
that as English speakers we
have it easy because ‘everyone’ speaks English so the perceived need to learn a language is
less compelling. In addition,
the new GCSE and CE papers, which are coming soon will once again include grammar, prose and translation, and for GCSE, coursework will no longer be an option. These examinations will no doubt be challenging and
a better test of the candidate’s abilities as a linguist, but they are no more dif cult than mastering the times tables, balancing chemical equations or  nding the area of a triangle - one simply has to learn the rules and apply them.
The rise of technology could
also be another reason for the decrease in the number of pupils opting to study a modern foreign language today. Living in the digital world, one could be forgiven for thinking ‘why bother learning a language?’ I’ve seen some fantastic apps, which can be loaded onto a smart phone – you simply speak in to the app and it translates exactly what you want to say in the language of your choice.
In addition, there are a wide range of translation tools and apps available and when used with care, the results can be excellent. However, translation tools are only as good as the operator. All too often on my travels I have seen menus which have probably been ‘ Google translated’; for example, ‘Souris d’agneau’ is most de nitely
not ‘mouse of lamb’, but ‘lamb shank’. Similarly a ‘ pavé de saumon’ is a salmon  llet and not a ‘salmon paving slab’! If this can happen when an adult who works in the catering
industry tries to translate a menu, just think what could happen if an uncritical pupil uses Google translate to write an article about his or her family?
Technology is not
simply a good ‘way out’
Despite technological advances making communication easier, there is still clearly a need to learn a modern foreign language if only to avoid embarrassing gaffes when using technology
to help communication.
The younger you are when
you start to learn a modern foreign language the easier
it is. Language learners who started young generally speak with a far better accent and
are signi cantly less inhibited when trying out new sounds;
in addition, they are less questioning and more accepting of things that an older pupil would consider strange. A favourite question of older learners is why do nouns have
a gender in French? Younger learners simply accept that some nouns are ‘la’ and some are
‘le’ and on we can go with the lesson.
This talk of the gender of nouns leads me to ponder why French
is still the most popular modern foreign language to learn in the UK? For me, this is a no-brainer – France is our nearest neighbour and to make learning a language truly meaningful we need to
put it into context. Even in this day of affordable and easy air travel a school trip to northern France remains a joy, not least because the whole school party can board a coach at school
and, after travelling through
the tunnel, alight with teachers’ nerves intact at their destination. I have to admit to having included (initially contre-coeur)
a day at Euro Disney in a recent residential trip to Paris and was
delighted at being bombarded
by security announcements and Disney songs in French and English for the whole day – the amount of new language my pupils picked up was remarkable.
Of course a trip to Euro Disney, despite the bilingual nature
of the experience, will not necessarily open a young person’s mind to different cultures, but being exposed to and learning
a modern foreign language will. Learning French is one way to open children’s eyes to different ways of doing things. My Year
2 French pupils were astounded to spot that in French neither the days of the week nor the months of the year take a capital letter and quickly came to terms that this was not wrong, just different, whilst Year 5 pupils have, after considerable debate about equality, decided that having a formal and an informal way of saying ‘you’ is actually quite handy.
Learning French in
a post-Brexit age
Learning French is, in this post-Brexit age, more and more important and if the take up
of modern foreign languages continues to decline we risk isolating ourselves linguistically, which, from a business point
of view, cannot be bene cial. So, how can we make learning French more engaging in class? Judicious use of technology is
a great way to add variety to a language class.
At Edge Grove, where all pupils are equipped with iPads and then chrome books in Years 7 and
8, I have found that text books with online interactive activities enable pupils to work at their own pace. Kahoot quizzes add excitement and a degree of competition to a lesson and Vocab Express is a fantastic way
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