Removal of Language Learning Requirements for Teenagers

In England, concern has been growing that the country’s students are falling behind when it comes to learning other languages.

In 2004, England stopped requiring that students over the age of 14 take classes in a foreign language. Since then, the percentage of students that have chosen to take foreign language classes has continued to drop. For example, according to the BBC, the number of students taking French GCSE has fallen 30% in the past 4 years.

Most of the other countries in the European Union require secondary school students to continue taking foreign language courses, so there is a concern that England will be at a competitive disadvantage in today’s global economy.

There are several advantages to becoming fluent in another language. First, it can make you more employable, especially as more and more companies start to do business internationally. Second, learning a foreign language can improve your speaking and writing skills in English.

For example, an American study completed in 1992 by the College Entrance Examination Board found that students who had studied a foreign language for 4 or more years scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT than students who had not. Other studies have shown that learning a foreign language boosts creativity and math skills as well.

With language learning becoming increasingly important, why did England choose to drop the language learning requirement for children over the age of 14?

According to the BBC, the change was made as part of a package of curriculum reform with the intention of reducing truancy among secondary school students. England’s government began pushing hard to reduce truancy in the early part of this decade, even going so far as to put parents in jail when their teenage children consistently skipped school.

The thought was that kids who didn’t want to be in school anyway would probably be more interested in vocational courses than in learning a foreign language, so the requirement was dropped.

Starting in 2011, language learning classes will be required for primary school students instead. Hopefully, children who start learning languages early will feel more inclined to keep studying them as they get older.

Foreign Language Skills Lacking for UK Students 

UK foreign language students often leave school barely conversational in the languages they study, according to a new study from the Guardian. The survey polled 1,001 students and former students to gauge their attitudes toward learning foreign languages and their experiences with the UK school system. The results were not good, to say the least. Some lowlights:

  • 8 in 10 students who studied popular languages in school said they were only able to understand “basic phrases.”
  • 4 in 10 who studied Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese felt they would have have difficulty “understanding, speaking or writing anything.”

Ouch! And before you start blaming “kids today” for not being motivated enough, keep in mind that 3 out of 4 students agreed that “languages provide a valuable understanding of other cultures” and 7 in 10 had a goal of learning a foreign language in the future. So what’s going on? The Guardian implies that the way language classes are structured and taught isn’t helping students learn the practical conversation skills they value, and that schools don’t treat languages as important. Experts quoted in the article differ on whether the upcoming reforms to A-Level language classes will help or hurt. The Guardian concludes:

 With a clear conflict emerging in the Guardian’s poll between young people’s interest in languages and a sense that their studies are not matching their aspirations, it remains to be seen whether the reforms can rescue language study in the UK from terminal decline.

Ouch! In an ironic twist, the survey also showed that while 1 in 5 UK students are bilingual with a home language other than English, their built-in language skills are not being recognized and rewarded by the school system. Even more depressing, almost 40% of these students don’t consider their home language an advantage. According to Cambridge University’s language centre directer, Jocelyn Wyburg, negative attitudes toward non-native English speakers may be to blame:

“I’ve talked to young people who don’t want to admit they have another language or, if they have a qualification won’t put it on their CV. They’ve been reluctant even to be proud of it.”

What can the UK can do to help students learn foreign languages in school, and to help students who already know a foreign language value the knowledge they have? Let us know in the comments!


Once You Learn a Language, Do You Ever Forget It?

Many people who studied a foreign language in school don’t continue to practice it after they graduate. The conventional wisdom is that if you don’t speak a language, you will forget it rather quickly. As my Spanish teacher used to say: “Use it or lose it.”  But is that really the case?

The results of a new study published on the Science Daily website suggests that when it comes to learning languages, this conventional wisdom isn’t completely true. Even many years later, the brain retains some memory of the languages you used to know. The study looked at native English speakers that spent time overseas as small children and who had learned either Hindi or Zulu during that time.

In vocabulary tests, the volunteers were unable to remember any of the words of the languages they had spoken as children. However, Hindi and Zulu both have phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a spoken language) that don’t exist in English. When the researchers taught both the volunteers and a control group to recognize these phonemes, the volunteers that had learned the languages as children picked them up much faster than the volunteers who had not.

So, apparently, you never entirely forget a language you once knew. Of course, if you don’t remember any of the vocabulary, remembering what the phonemes sound like doesn’t help much if you need to communicate with someone in that language. However, it is comforting to know that if you try to pick up the language again, you won’t be starting from scratch.

The researchers who wrote the study concluded by recommending that children be exposed to different languages as much as possible, saying that “Even if the language is forgotten (or feels this way) after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language.”

New Foreign Language Requirements for British Army

The British Army is getting serious about foreign languages. According to The Telegraph, starting in 2018 soldiers will need at least some foreign language training if they wish to be promoted above the rank of Captain.

The move is meant to help improve cultural awareness and make it easier for the military to communicate with local people during overseas deployments.  Some experts believe that better cultural awareness would have improved outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The requirement is new, but according to outside experts and senior military officers alike, the goal is a return to an older model of military service, one that is less reliant on brute force and more reliant on “people skills” to gain cooperation. For example,  James de Waal, senior fellow for international security at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, told the Financial Times,

“In part it’s a return to a traditional British empire policing role – chaps in long khaki shorts dealing with locals with low levels of force but high levels of nous.”

Meanwhile, a senior officer told The Telegraph that

“Many of our forebears would have been embarrassed to see how little knowledge we arrived with in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our great grandfathers’ time, when they served in those regions, they spoke the languages and knew the people.”

Starting this year, subunit commanders will be offered language training, primarily in French and Arabic.  Fluency is not the goal, an army spokeswoman said in a statement to Soldier Magazine:

“Bi-lateral relationships are essential for the Army’s future focus on defence engagement. Officers aiming to be considered for subunit command appointments starting in 2018 will need to demonstrate basic survival level speaking and listening skills in a foreign language.”

Do you think the new requirements are a good idea?

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