Philip Salter at the Adam Smith Institute laments the lack of French taught in schools, and attributes this to schools preferring that children take easier subjects that will reflect well in the league tables.
There may be an element of truth in this, in that French or German at ‘O’ level is on a par with mathematics – there is either a right or a wrong answer. ‘Religious Studies’ on the other hand, require that you hold an opinion, much easier to ‘fudge’ your way through.
However, schools seem to have no aversion to teaching, nay insisting upon, pupils being proficient in other languages. In Wales, the teaching of Welsh is compulsory in all schools up to age 16, despite, or because of, the fact that only 20% of the population speak Welsh. There are handsome political benefits to be gained from preserving the language. This means that even the children of non-Welsh speaking parents grow up speaking some Welsh.
In Scotland, pre-school children are being taught Gaelic under the Curriculum for Excellence programme. So there is no sign of an inherent distaste for teaching languages per se amongst the teaching fraternity.
Paul Noble, a well known linguist, attributes the decline to the decision by the Labour Government in 2004 to remove ‘foreign language’ as a core compulsory subject for English pupils – note this did not apply to Welsh or Scottish pupils. Since then, the number of students studying French has fallen by 45%.
Whilst I can see some merit in preserving ancient languages such as Welsh or Gaelic, there is more economic sense in being able to communicate with our closest ‘foreign’ trading partner – the French; a mere 20 miles of overblown river separates us.
One of the major problems is that the French which is taught in schools is ‘Parisian’ French. The language of business and bureaucracy. A language which many Frenchmen have only a rudimentary understanding of, as you will quickly find out if you try out your ‘A’ level French on an Aquitaine farmer.
Parisian French as the universal language of France only dates back some 100 years, one of the reasons why the Mairie has a historic duty to help you compile letters or fill in forms addressed to the national government! Each department of French speaks its own version – and it may as well be Welsh for all the help it is communicating with a Parisian tax official.
Somewhere I have a list of the 1700 words which have the exact same meaning and same spelling in English and French – although there are a thousand or more ‘near misses’, known as the ‘faux amis’. It surprises many English speakers to learn that they already have a vocabulary of 1700 ‘French words’ – they just haven’t quite learnt how to pronounce them yet, nor mastered the Gallic shrug……
French grammar is perceived as ‘difficult’ – though not half as obscure as Welsh grammar, trust me. Yet in everyday conversation, many of the grammatical rules imposed in school French classes disappear.
If someone said to you ‘have key you I need for front door’, you would still understand what it was that they wanted, even if you did have to think about it for a moment or two, and would respond to the request a lot better than having someone shout ‘a-tu la clé de la porte d’entrée?’ three times, whilst looking exasperated at your stupidity.
Most of the English building trade, certainly all the lawyers, and bankers, have an extensive French vocabulary, learnt at their English Mother’s knee, for the simple reason that until the Norman invasion we had no such professions, and thus no words for the terms required – in the same way that the Welsh have no true Welsh word for ambulance – such things did not exist until introduced by the English.
Private schools still teach French and Latin – they recognise that students going on to study law for instance, will need to have a rudimentary understanding of those languages. Those educated in state schools thus face a far more effective bar to social mobility – to becoming a barrister for instance – than any perceived class barrier in the University entrance requirements.
The state schools are turning out an entire generation of children who can barely read or write their Mother tongue, never mind understand that their Mother tongue is largely either French, German or Latin; nor practice the most basic mathematics, who are thus only equipped for the most menial of jobs – at a time when menial jobs have almost disappeared from market.
There is something a lot deeper going on here than the school’s wish to do well in the league tables. Could it be part of the anti-European agenda?