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Why teach French at all in 2018?

Discussion in 'Modern foreign languages' started by Jonntyboy, Oct 10, 2018.

  1. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    As I expect was the case for most of us, French was the first language I learned at school (and home). I then did German, and followed this by adding Italian to them both at Uni. I learned Spanish by myself largely for fun and because we had close family friends in Spain whom we visited quite a bit. Later on I lived, worked and did an intensive course in Spain to polish it up.
    Historically, it seems, French has been the first, and sometimes only, language taught in many UK schools. I can see the reasoning: it was for many years the "diplomatic" language, and "educated people" in Victorian times were supposed to speak it. I expect it was also quite handy in Napoleonic times and even earlier - a way of communicating with and/or spying on the main enemy. :cool:
    Today, if they teach a language at all, many UK primary schools seem to opt for French: in my experience some teach it quite badly, some quite well. A few request specialist secondary teachers to work with them. Generally, if you ask them why they have chosen French, it is normally because they have a teacher or two who did it to GCSE at school themselves and it's therefore the only one they feel they have a shot at doing to any reasonable standard.
    So, its prevalence, I would suggest, may largely be due to historical factors and I contend that it's well past the time that this was reassessed.
    Ignoring English of course, of the four other, major, European languages Spanish is by far the most useful in today's world, and assuming that South American growth and influence continues, this status can only be consolidated. I believe that English students also find it relatively easy to learn, in terms of pronunciation, WYSIWYG and basic, logical grammar structure. Even many of the exceptions follow easily-recognizable patterns. Italian is undoubtedly a very beautiful language and is also straightforward to learn and pronounce, but sadly it's hardly particularly useful in terms of its place in the current state of world languages... a far cry from Latin in Roman times, indeed. :)
    German is perhaps more difficult in many ways, but once the basic patterns and the structures have been understood, I find that many students like it. Some seem to relish the challenge, and of course its pronunciation isn't tough for English native speakers. Further, given that German uses cases (unlike the other european "majors"), it is useful as a first introduction to such ideas, making easier any later learning of, in particular, Slavic languages, or modern Greek. Whilst it's true that it is not widely spoken in the world outside Germany and Austria, a grasp of it allows an understanding of getting on for 50% of Dutch, and German trade with the UK is still at a high level. Plus, for anyone interested in history and philosophy, clearly the importance of German ideas and activities in the 20th century is immense.
    So, what about French? Well, if you are at a school in Kent or elsewhere close to the south coast, clearly it's great to be able to pop over the channel, do some shopping and practise the language. Brits, at least from the southern half of the country, also tend to holiday in France, though maybe not as much as in Spain. But in terms of general usefulness in the world today, French has to be so far down the scale as to be almost out of sight. Unless you are in France, or in odd bits of what the French used to call their Empire, it's largely useless. In addition, as a language its grammar is riddled with exceptions and inconsistencies (yes, I know English is too, but that's irrelevant to this discussion). Compare the way the numbers 1-100 work in French with the sheer logic of Spanish and German... Most of all, though, it's hard to pronounce for English speakers. There are sounds that we just don't use, and in many cases trying to produce the correct French accent is something that embarrasses teens and actually puts them off trying - especially that strange, nasal "eeuu" sound.
    So to conclude, I believe that forward-thinking and outward-looking schools, seeking to create a useful foundation for their students, need to look hard at the range of languages they offer. Given that we already have the massive advantage of English as a mother tongue, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin and perhaps an Asian language such as Urdu would seem to be among the best choices for today's teens. Learning French in most UK schools these days is, in my view, largely a waste of time and effort, and a historical millstone around the neck of the MFL curriculum.
     
    MosaiK likes this.
  2. meggyd

    meggyd Senior commenter

    I'm guessing you're not a linguist.
     
    Lara mfl 05, yasf and ed717 like this.
  3. ed717

    ed717 New commenter

    You are so wrong I feel sorry for you. If it wasn't for learning French, I would never have had the opportunity to work in France, Switzerland, Quebec (Canada) and Burkina Faso. Such doors are firmly closed for those without French. It is one of the most spoken languages in the world, and speakers can access opportunities all across the Francophonie! (French speaking world)
     
    pascuam49, Lara mfl 05 and yasf like this.
  4. meggyd

    meggyd Senior commenter

    Learning any language is worthwhile because you can then apply the skills you have learned to go on and learn another one. Why do you think that nearly every linguist on here and working in schools is competent in more than one Mfl? Because any language can be fascinating. When parents agonise about French or Spanish etc I tell them that it actually doesn't matter which they pick. The process of learning sets you up for life. And it is random. Who knows which language will be useful in x years time? And remember that other countries have strange linguistic histories. I have spoken French to Romanians and German to Latvians.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  5. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    ed717 - thanks for your comment. The fact that French has benefited you in particular, with the choices you have made, is great, and I'm happy for you. I too have made friends, and had good times, in France, made possible and more enjoyable in most cases by the fact that I speak French. But your example does not negate the general validity of my comment as to the current, and likely future, usefulness of it, compared with some other languages.

    meggyd - thanks for your second comment too (I'm not sure of the logic of your first message, if you had fully read my post!). I'm completely in agreement with your contention about learning skills transference, and if the choice were "learn French or no language at all" I'd be backing "learn French" 100%. But that is not the choice, in most schools, these days. And it is also surely indisputable that any language can be fascinating, as you say (especially to those of us with a natural affinity for languages, as I expect most language teachers have).
    But that wasn't my point. I was simply trying to look ahead at how the world might be when the current Y7s are, say, in their twenties and thirties. And although I also agree, as you say, that countries have strange linguistic histories, and that you do sometimes find yourself speaking unexpected languages to people from all over the place, I maintain that French is far less useful at the moment than the other languages I suggested we should be teaching, and, further, that it will continue to decline as the non-western european world gains in influence and power.
    FWIW, when parents and pupils have talked to me about the French/Spanish question, I have always come down unequivocally on the side of Spanish, for all the reasons I mentioned in my initial comment.Time will tell, but so far it seems a good bet.
     
  6. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    Out of interest, I've had a quick look at several random Googled sites regarding the "most spoken" languages in the world today. In no case was French in the top ten.
     
  7. meggyd

    meggyd Senior commenter

    The reason I wonder if you are a teaching linguist is that you seem to be totally unfamiliar with the situation regarding staffing and available courses in UK schools today. You need staff who are fluent and qualified to teach a language properly. That means (and we have to think post Brexit here) that you are relying mainly on UK student teachers coming through from unis that are offering fewer and fewer languages. Then you have the courses. The main exam bodies are reluctant to invest in exams and most significantly materials when they are not going to see a big return on their investment. This is the main reason for the proposal to end the Polish exams.(Thankfully foiled) Lots of candidates but they wouldn't be buying courses as they are mainly bi-linguals. So you have to find specialist staff who can teach the courses in offer. Try finding those staff! SLT do not have the time or the resources.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  8. yasf

    yasf Occasional commenter

    Even as an ex-Spanish teacher, I find Jonntyboy's comments about French amusingly ignorant.

    Thanks for reminding me why I don't teach either MFL or in the UK anymore.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  9. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    yasf - thank you for your comment. I'm always happy to read differing views, even if patronising and deliberately rude. But those comments that just patronise without any effort at a reasoned explanation or a rational critique are not worth consideration, and tend, I've found, to reflect the vacuity of the person making them. As yours clearly do.
     
    minka1 likes this.
  10. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    megydd - your #7. True, of course. That's partly why I think of it as a historical problem, and as you imply it won't change much until more people, with more language variety, come through the system. But look at how Spanish has become so popular. When I was at school, the options were only French and German. I wonder if in fact there are any UK schools that offer Spanish and/or German, and have actually dropped French.
    I am a teaching linguist, but to be fair had not considered your staffing point in any depth, as wherever I have taught we seem to have had a good depth of language ability - always French, of course, but generally at least three other options available within the department, including Mandarin and Russian in a couple of cases. Finding an Urdu teacher might not be that hard, but Arabic could be tough.
     
    pascuam49 likes this.
  11. yasf

    yasf Occasional commenter

    Anytime :)
    Ah, that explains it. Reading your posts, you have clearly been pushed over the edge - unsurprising for any poor soul caught still teaching MFL in Brexit Britain. It gives even the best of us an aneurism if we don't get out.
     
  12. meggyd

    meggyd Senior commenter

    Sadly things are only getting worse. Schools won't run small A level groups so fewer uni students coming through. Unis not offering as many unusual languages due to cuts. Also the role of the exam boards. Many years ago you could do really unusual languages but now the role of groups like Pearson is seriously questionable because they promote exams and courses for profit. When the native speakers start to leave after Brexit and fail to apply to work in the UK we will be in deep trouble. Sadly the powers that be will dumb down. Look at primary languages! Occasionally taught well but often given to someone with a GCSE or worse- and I have seen this- a TA with a holiday home in France.
     
    pascuam49 and Lara mfl 05 like this.
  13. Dunteachin

    Dunteachin Star commenter

    I think Jontyboy has made some good points!

    Still, after Brexit, language learning will seem even more pointless to most kids... :(
     
    MosaiK and Jonntyboy like this.
  14. frustum

    frustum Lead commenter

    It would also be interesting to know, if there are schools which don't offer French, what they do with kids moving into the area - or do they end up opting for different schools. I taught in a school where half started French and half started German in year 7 - except that the German classes always started off larger than the French classes, because experience showed that as new pupils joined the school, the French half would grow disproportionally.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  15. Geekie

    Geekie Occasional commenter

    Instead of language bashing and trying to create a hierarchy of languages, can we not just agree that any language is better than no language?
     
    yasf, Lara mfl 05 and Dunteachin like this.
  16. Lara mfl 05

    Lara mfl 05 Star commenter

    Exactly. :D
    ti help children understand a culture and language different to their own, in the hope of building better understanding has to be a major consideration in teaching any language.
     
    MosaiK likes this.
  17. meggyd

    meggyd Senior commenter

    At the moment things are so bad that I feel we should support whatever we can. French, Spanish, Mandarin anything really- all valuable.
     
    MosaiK and Lara mfl 05 like this.
  18. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    I'm sure we all do, and I'm sorry you read my first post as trying to create a hierarchy. I was simply considering the historical position of French and wondering if it was a valid today as over past years. My conclusion was that it isn't, which I think I backed up with some reasoned comment, but of course there are always two or more sides to any discussion.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  19. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    I'm sure we'd all accept that, and nowhere in my comments have I argued against it. I'd simply prefer that the understanding came from a language with the potential to be more useful for the students than French, that's all.
     
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  20. Jonntyboy

    Jonntyboy New commenter

    Thanks. :) I hope Brexit won't make that much difference. I suppose it may depend on exactly how it works. If the UK does end up doing a lot more trade with such places as India and Malaysia as well as South America, it might encourage an interest in different languages apart from the usual european ones.

    And if we do more trade with the USA, we might be able to learn North American too, and have a chance at understanding people from Arkansas. :D
     

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