Tongue-tied: Gove goes wrong on languages

Michael Gove is wrong about almost everything.

I’d better get what he’s right about out of the way first, so I don’t have to spend too long agreeing with him. He is right that the National Curriculum should be slimmed down in order to give more freedom to schools as to what students learn outside the core. He is also right that there should be more of a focus on languages; however, he is so wrong about how this focus should come.

Why is it that whenever we have a conversation about introducing or emphasising certain things in education we only focus on secondary school? This is particularly pertinent when it comes to languages. Requiring a language at GCSE is useless if you do not lay the groundwork at a younger age.

There is a continuing argument in the field of generative linguistics about whether there is a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition – whether the ability to learn language is biologically linked to age. Such theories as Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device have been proposed, whereby children under a certain age, often postulated at between 10 and 12, have an in-built ‘organ’ in their minds for learning languages that becomes unavailable, or at least less effective, after that age. This is primarily directed at the acquisition of a first language rather than the learning of a second language, but studies have shown time and time again that at least certain aspects of language learning differ depending upon the age of the learner. For instance, it has often been noted that child learners of a language pick up a native accent much more easily than adult learners.

Even putting aside the linguistic arguments, a child who is adept at a second language before reaching the middle of secondary education seems more likely to take an interest in it. I’ve seen first-hand a group of Year 7 students being put into a room and having German thrown at them – most did not care, and can you blame them? An 11-year-old who has got by perfectly well up until that point speaking only English can hardly be expected to be enthused about learning the 11th most spoken language in the world and which initially sounds far from attractive. (I hope German speakers will forgive me for saying this – I personally grew to love it.)

In much of Scandinavia and Northern Europe, language education starts in primary school. As such, in Sweden 89 percent of the population speaks English; in the Netherlands it is 87 percent, with Denmark coming in with 86. This is a higher proportion of English-speakers than in that rock of the Commonwealth, Canada.

Flip this round and you see that less than 5 percent of British workers (as of 2004) can count to 20 in a foreign language. The fact that, as demonstrated above, English is such a dominant language on the world stage is part of the problem – we assume that wherever we go there will be English speakers. In fact 80 percent of workers surveyed in this study expected to get work abroad despite their poor language skills. Why bother learning another language?

We need to instil awareness of a growing global community from a young age and tackle the arrogance that seems inherent in being a native speaker of English. We need to teach languages that have a visible relevance on the world stage – Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and so forth. And we need to take advantage of the natural aptitude that younger children have for languages rather than penalising them at a later stage if they’re not prodigies in multiple tongues. Gove’s strategy of retroactively applying these standards to a whole generation will serve only to further accentuate our nation’s shortfalls in this field.


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