Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Speaking in tongues.

I’ve been having some ongoing correspondence about language teaching and learning with a former student of mine, currently teaching English in a school in Madrid, He’s one of those who defied his genetic background (from an ordinary family in the north west of England) and survived the apparently terrible teaching in state schools to go on and study Spanish and French at one of the old traditional universities. He sent me this link to a rather depressing articles about the state of language study in the UK. 

One of our government’s suggestions for improving the situation is the introduction of language learning in primary schools. They seem to have been talking about this for years and years but always as though this were a new and revolutionary idea. Back in the 1970s when I started teaching in a secondary school all our first year classes (what they now call Year 7 – in other words 11-12 year olds) had a handful of children who had learnt some French in primary school When I say a handful, I mean only two or three per class. Maybe it was something to do with the streaming system in my school but they didn’t manage to put all those children in one class so that they could progress from what they already knew. Neither had all the children from those primary schools offering French all gone to the same secondary school. That would have been too simple. No, instead there were these little groups of children in schools all over the borough who were having to go back to square one and start afresh. Of course, if you did the job properly you made use of those children so that the others could learn from them as well. And amazingly they did learn. Three years on from that starting point a large number of them had a reasonable understanding of the most useful tenses. They learnt the grammar, you see, and they had fun doing it. Here’s a link, courtesy of my former student, to another article, this time about how poorly prepared students are when they move from secondary school language classes to sixth form.

As to the effectiveness of such a change now, well, I have my doubts. From what I hear about languages in state primary schools at the moment, it seems to be the responsibility of a teacher who did GCSE in a foreign language some years ago and has been sent on a refresher course if he/she is very lucky. Those who have the language skills are not trained primary teachers. Still no joined-up thinking! 

Just in case anyone thinks I believe the situation is really much better in Spain, where people tell you they are hopeless at learning languages, here’s a link to something I found in La Voz de Galicia, where a team went out on the street asking people how well they spoke English.  I especially like the identification of a picture of “soup” as “soap”. This is probably not a vocabulary problem but a pronunciation problem as many Spaniards pronounce “ou” as “oh” rather than “oo”. A common error, possibly the result of not reading aloud often enough – see the comments on that in the “tip of the iceberg” article linked above. 

Ah, well, that’s enough of that. Rant over for now.

Here’s another cultural difference. We have been collecting conkers (horse chestnuts) and passing them on to the grandchildren. Not that they can actually play conkers at school any longer. The activity of hanging a conker from a string – after first going through various rituals to harden it as much as possible – and then trying to smash your friends’ conkers with it has been deemed too dangerous for modern school playgrounds. Children still knock unripe conkers down from the chestnut trees and our grandchildren are very grateful for the specimens we have found for them. However, no-one really knows what to do with them after that. My daughter tells me that if you place them strategically around your house they can deter spiders from entering. That sounds a bit like hanging up garlic to protect the house form vampires, if you ask me. 

In the north of Spain, instead of battering each others’ chestnuts they roast them and eat them. It’s considered important enough for there to be a fiesta related to it, called “magosto” in Galicia and “castanyada” in Cataluña. Schools close early for the fiesta and the children get to eat roast chestnuts in the school yard. Here’s a link to a song all about it, in Gallego of course! 

If you manage to learn a foreign language, you get to participate in all this fun cultural stuff. It’s worth the effort.

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