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UK Schools League Table Language Nightmare

Why are British schools now pushing Mandarin Chinese as a subject? It’s not the language we need to be teaching our kids if you look at the trade and population movement statistics. It’s as if our schools have become conditioned to only be interested in the GCSE league tables, not the future of our children.

If we should be increasing langauge learning it should be on languages our children will be most likely to need to use during their lifetimes, the main languages of the European Union, German and French. Languages such as Polish and other Slavic languages will be more relevant to our children as the new Europeans take more of a place at the European table than far-away Asian languages such as Chinese.

Britain’s major trading partner is the EU with over half of both imports and exports. We import nearly twice as much from our largest partner, Germany, as we do from the second largest, the US or France with 8.8% and 8% respectively. Although the US is still our biggest export market on an individual country by country basis, Germany and then France run it close.

On those figures alone you’d think that German would be the main foreign language our kids learn, followed by French. But no, for reasons set more than fifty years ago, French is still our number one foreign language. For some reason, German is considered “unimportant” or “too difficult” or perhaps as the tabloids seem to think “unnecessary” – after all, who won the war, as they like to say? Strange attitude since almost 100 million people in Europe have it as their main language and our linguistic inadequacies prevent us from selling as much of our stuff to them as they sell of their stuff to us.

Even with our main foreign language, French, just 200,000 pupils took the subject at GCSE this summer: that’s no more candidates than took Religious Education! Even fewer sat German – just over 80,000 pupils sitting the GCSE in 2007. That’s just one in nine of the 732,000 who sat English which puts the numbers into perspective a little.

For a very short time, teaching foreign languages was compulsory at secondary level, but this is no longer the case. Pressured by the need for higher success rates in literacy and numeracy, languages seem to have been considered a “soft option” for the educators to get rid of. Sorry, wrong decision.

If they want our children to become more literate, then they need to stop giving them drawings to do for homework in History, Geography – and even in English! Practice makes perfect, and modern educators don’t give kids enough opportunity to practice writing, nor do they point out mistakes of spelling or punctuation. No employer wants someone who cannot be trusted to write a letter because they fill it with errors. And few employers are interested in the creative writing capabilities of their staff. That’s about as useful as trigonometry for most.

Even when languages are taught, do we give our children enough opportunity to reach their full linguistic potential? How many hours a week do they learn languages? Most of the time it’s less than 3 hours. In trilingual Switzerland they teach each language for between 3 and 6 hours per week depending on age. No wonder we’re falling behind international competitors: they take export markets seriously, we don’t. Never have.

The very fact that we don’t match language learning with the ages Child Development Psychologists say the human brain finds them easiest to learn – which is up to the age of 9/10 – shows UK education thinking urgently needs an overhaul.

Let’s look at Switzerland again where one in five of the population is non-Swiss. As an advisor to expats, I do know how many kids with English speaking parents go to Swiss primary schools and within a year or two speak German or French as well as the locals. They do put the hours in though, something British educators seem often reluctant or unable to empower their charges to do.The kids have the energy, but are there enough teachers?

Some UK primary schools are far thinking enough to teach French for instance from the age of 7, but even then it is voluntary and not part of the curriculum. There is evidence that children who have been exposed to French from an early age such as 7 learn the language far better at secondary school, and pick up other languages more easily too.

But why Mandarin Chinese? I know about the predictions about China becoming the worlds biggest economy in 2040. But let’s examine that more closely. If China’s economy right now was the same size as that of the US, its GDP per head would still only just meet the world average of about $8,900 per person; in the US it is currently $39,680.

With current population sizes, China’s economy will have to grow and grow until it is nearly five times as large as the US economy per head of population to equal the US economy on a GDP per head basis. I don’t see that happening this century, never mind in my lifetime. It’s clear that China’s population is so large that it skews statistics and makes us think it is more important than it is. But it is disingenous to claim that “because 20% of the world’s population speaks Chinese our children must learn it too”. That’s a bit like saying we should teach Gujerati or Urdu because another 20% of the world’s population lives in India.

But let’s ignore trade for now. What about where we choose to live and work? Do Brits retire en masse to China? No, to France and Spain. Do Brits go to work en masse in China? No, to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and France.

Whichever way you look at it, our children have need of more and better language skills. In a European future the best jobs will go to those who can do their specialisations and speak more than one language. Our European neighbours are aware of this, even if we are not.

It really is time we woke up: reliance on English in future just won’t be enough.

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2 comments on “UK Schools League Table Language Nightmare

  1. I agree with you. I find it very strange when I was in England and France why your two nations don’t take time to learn each other’s languages. You are both big trade partners and you both have huge tourism potential between your countries.

    I just find it strange that your schools now want to learn Mandarin? Who’s making money out of this decision?

  2. Not just tourism, but there are some 200,000 British expats living in France apparently, and many thousands of French in the UK. French is of course the first foreign language taught to every kid in the UK, but usually only for two years and not very effectively IMO. Both my kids were lucky enough to learn from age 7 so are pretty good at it, but not all kids get that opportunity – the Headteacher even used sometimes to talk French during morning assembly!

    As for Mandarin, I have no idea why they thought that would be better than the language of a nearer nation…

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