When will my hovercraft be full of eels? Languages for all and the EBacc. Let’s just look at what might be the consequences.

Having a very smart new computer I no longer have an excuse to put off my long promised blog. The problem is I know that I have to be brief otherwise no-one will want to read. So I am going to start by putting my head above the parapet and share what I think are some worrying aspects at what is happening in the world of language teaching in England at the moment.

I believe in languages for all at both primary and secondary school

I do not believe in GCSE for all. This is quite a different animal.

Like many I had hoped that the new GCSE in languages would be fit for the 21st century and the young people who want to use a language for practical as well as academic purposes. In my opinion the new GCSEs are backwards looking, unclear in purpose and now rooted in a retrograde approach to why and how we learn languages. I am not even going to begin to look at the alarming lack of the use of modern technology in the new GCSEs. There are far better people than me to do this amongst the mfltwitterati. I am going to focus on just a few of the things that worry me most, why I think these have come about and what may be the consequences.

If we really are committed to languages for all then our main areas of focus must be:

  1. language teaching that is right for all
  2. assessment that allows all learners to show what they can do rather than penalise them for what they cannot do

In the new GCSE learners still have to do some really bizarre things. Let’s look at listening exams. Yes they are still built around the disembodied voice i.e. the tape recorder by any other name, in which the listener has to pick out certain details and avoid the occasional and deliberate red herrings put in by the exam writers pour s’amuser? Ha ha that’ll catch ’em out! They hear lourd. I bet some of them won’t know it’s about a heavy lorry but will think that it is something religious. This actually happened in one exam paper when I was still teaching! Our department complained

In my opinion this type of listening test is completely unfit for purpose. Surely listening is part of a conversation usually face to face or even on the phone in which participants are aware of the context? Or even better why can’t we have a listening exam that is a DVD of people talking? The GCSE student can then work out the context, see the person, look at the body language and facial expressions. All massive clues in real life communication.

However we have been told for decades that this is simply too expensive. Well I am prompted to paraphrase; “if you think great testing in language learning is expensive then try bad testing.” We all know the cost of this. And so much research has shown that students hate listening to the tape recorder or computer sound system. So alien.

And as for the newly introduced translation tests! How high am I on this (dead) horse?

Translation into and out of the foreign language went out with O level. I remember post A level sleepless nights when I was convinced I had failed because I did not know the French for “a clearing” or the English for le perron. But in this new(ish) century pupils will once again be obliged to translate both into the foreign language and out of the foreign language into English. Now I have no problem with translation as a teaching activity and we can actually make it enjoyable. But in my opinion it has no place in GCSE exams.

What worries me most is the backwash effect that translation and old fashioned disembodied listening will have on language teaching and learning from Year 7 onwards. A strange and unwelcome move away from authenticity and a leap into the “my hovercraft is full of eels today and was full of eels yesterday and will be full of eels tomorrow” school of language teaching!

So let’s really look at why this has happened. Who has advised on this new curriculum which may set many up to fail? Why was the Languages Ladder in which thousands of pounds of public monies were invested and which was about motivating and rewarding all learners and raising standards in achievement and attainment so gleefully abandoned? Why was the Language Diploma welcomed at all 3 levels by teachers, HE and employers abandoned? What about other alternative qualifications?

If the languages community is happy and some may even be jubilant – their job here is done – that languages are a key feature of the EBacc in the form of GCSE then we are subscribing to the legacy of languages as an academic discipline for some and not as a communication  tool that should make all learners see the world beyond their immediate horizons.