Amy Thompson

Amy Thompson from Speak to the Future – campaign for languages, the UK Federation of Chinese Schools and Chair at NALDIC – National Subject Association for EAL. (september 2012)

EAL is the “other side” of bilingualism. According to the January 2011 School Census, nearly 1 million pupils in English schools speak another language in addition to English. There are 16 languages which are spoken by more than 10,000 pupils. These numbers are comparable to the number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN), but the provision available is not comparable. The most spoken languages are Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Polish. There are 300 languages registered as being spoken in London.

Government policy to make learning foreign languages non-compulsory has led to a decline in language learning. (Schools are subject to pressure from league tables and it is considered more difficult for pupils to achieve high grades in languages.) The introduction of the English Baccalaureat (Ebac) has done a bit to reverse this trend.

In European survey on language competence, England performed very poorly. Only 9% of 14-15 year old pupils studying French in England reach the level of being “an independent language user who can deal with straightforward, familiar matters.” The corresponding figure for the 14 countries surveyed – usually for pupils learning English – is 42%. 30% of pupils in English schools do not reach the level of “a basic user who can use very simple language with support.”

75% of the world is bilingual. According to the Eurobarometer opinion poll on EU citizens’ attitudes towards multilingualism and foreign language learning, 72% of people in the UK think that everyone in the EU should be able to speak at least one other language as well as their mother tongue. However, only 39% of people in the UK (one quarter of whom are native speakers of other languages who can converse in English) are able to hold a conversation in a foreign language. This compares to an EU average of 54%. The UK remains near the bottom of the EU table.

There is a big discrepancy between the uptake of foreign languages in private and state schools. The languages taught in primary schools are dominated by French (89% of schools in 2008), Spanish (25%) and German (10%), while a small number of schools (3% or under) offered Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Urdu. The main languages taught in secondary schools are French, German and Spanish. Others include Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Urdu and Bengali

The future of language teaching in primary schools will depend on the review of the National Curriculum (but the program struggles with the lack of expertise among primary teachers.) The government has decided not to proceed with the new primary curriculum which would have made language learning statutory in Key Stage 2. However, it has confirmed its commitment to the importance of primary languages, saying that it believes that language skills are important to the social and economic future of the country.

In the secondary sector, the government has said it is committed to increasing the number of pupils studying languages post 14. In 2011, they introduced the Ebac, by which schools will have to report on how many young people achieve A*-C grades at GCSE in English, maths, a science, a language and a humanity.

There are 16 languages with GCSE accreditation – these can change depending on the number of entries. Asset languages system – thinking of getting rid of some languages because they are not commercially viable.

There are many challenges ahead. The numbers of pupils studying French and German at GCSE plummeted by 54% between 2002 and 2011. There was some reversal of this trend in 2012 primarily due to the inclusion of languages in the Ebac. A’level entries for languages have fallen. One third of university language departments closed between 2002 and 2009. 60% of employers are not satisfied with the foreign language skills of graduates. There is a shortage of English mother tongue interpreters at the European Commission.

The objectives of Speak to the Future are to reverse the downward trends in the coming years, build on positive developments and ensure that languages are truly valued in this country.

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