A great deal has been written recently about the numerous advantages of young children and adolescents learning a foreign language in the wake of the Government’s decision to make language compulsory in primary schools across the country. Students who have learnt a second language during their studies will have an advantage over others when it comes to finding employment as companies these days give priority to candidates who are fluent in more than one language.
There is, however, still a low percentage of students who are choosing a foreign language for their ‘A’ levels whilst many language departments in universities across the country are closing. What might be putting students off languages could be the fact that they are mostly talked about in the context of employment opportunities. Many secondary school pupils as well as undergraduate students are not entirely sure about the best career path to take so the talk of future job prospects is unlikely to make a subject more appealing to them.
In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, German Literature Professor at Oxford University, Katrin Kohl, was quoted as saying: “… the emphasis on languages as simply a skill useful for employment has eroded the pleasure of language learning… it has completely turned young people off languages.’
Many parents exert influence on their children to choose a language at school, such as Latin, for example, if they have their heart set on their child studying medicine or they might advise them to start learning Mandarin as they envisage their offspring as future high-fliers in the City.
With so few young people interested in choosing a second language to study, there seems to be a need for reform as to how languages are taught and also assessed. As Katrin Kohl rightly points out, languages should be promoted as more than just something that will look good on a student’s future CV: “Kids should be taught transferable language skills, thereby opening their minds to what languages can do”.
When languages are taught and assessed the emphasis tends to be on written and verbal skills but students are not expected to have any knowledge of the culture in which the target language is spoken. In order to change this and include more foreign literature and culture on the syllabus, the A Level Content Advisory Board, of which Kohl is a member has put forward what have been described as a set of radical proposals.
If the proposals are accepted, future language students could be reading novels by foreign authors and learning about the culture of the country whose language they are being taught.