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Modern language teaching: Europe disfigured!

Last Updated: 15 Jul 2018

On 22 May the European Commission published a proposal for a Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to language teaching and learning.

It responds only partially to the European Council's invitation of 14 December 2017 to make proposals "to strengthen language learning and to ensure that more young people speak at least two European languages in addition to their mother tongue", thus taking up the objective of the Barcelona European Council of 15 and 16 March 2002, i.e. 15 earlier.

The Commission notes the overall failure of Member States' policies.

"At present, Member States are not making sufficient progress towards the target agreed at the 2002 Barcelona European Council to take further measures for the teaching of "at least two foreign languages from an early age". "While most EU pupils start learning a first foreign language earlier than in previous decades, the level of ambition is still low as regards the second foreign language. The percentage of pupils who begin learning their first foreign language in primary school is currently 83.8 per cent, an increase of 16.5 percentage points over 2005. However, there are still 11 countries in which a second foreign language is not compulsory in general secondary education and, in 16 education systems, students in vocational education learn significantly fewer foreign languages than their counterparts in general education. »

"If we change perspective and look at the actual acquisition of skills rather than simply participation in learning, studies show a generally low level of mastery at the end of compulsory schooling, as well as very large differences between Member States."

The Commission makes no diagnosis of this lack of result. But it makes a few proposals that could be interpreted as the beginning of a diagnosis that will help us understand why, in terms of language teaching, we have really lost 15 years.

The Committee therefore recommends that the other policies be made more consistent with the Barcelona objective.

 It is indeed surprising, for example, that the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training ("Education and Training 2020") adopted in 2009 makes no reference to the Barcelona objective and the joint reports of the Council and the Commission of 2012 and 2015 on the implementation of the strategic framework make no mention of it. There has therefore been no strategy for implementing the Barcelona objective, and since the Member States have acted in a disorderly manner, with varying political will, it is easy to understand why no tangible results have been achieved so far. And under no circumstances can the principle of subsidiarity justify the pusillanimity of the Council, the Commission and national governments alike in this area.

Without wanting to give in the caricature, we can draw a shortcut to what has happened over the past fifteen years.

The kick-off was given by the British government of the time, led by Tony Blair, who in 2004 made modern language teaching optional after college. The result was a collapse of the living languages taught in high school, first and foremost French, but the measure was cunningly presented as progress because at the same time it had been decided to set up language awareness classes in primary school.

Most countries have done the same, with regard to the first level, which has exclusively benefited English, whereas a little will would have made it possible to develop diversified teaching "from an early age". But several countries have also followed suit with regard to upper secondary education (the lycée corresponding to CT3 of the international classification), either by retaining only optional education or by limiting teaching to a single language.

The lowering of the age of first language learning has thus been to the detriment of the teaching of second modern languages at the level of the second cycle of secondary education, i.e. high school.

English has established itself at a very high level in primary school (less than 5% learn two languages on average, but 30% in Estonia and Greece, 83% in Luxembourg) and has been reinforced at secondary school level (the proportion of teaching in one language increased from 36.3% to 39.5% from 2005 to 2015), thus in higher education, with second languages progressing only at secondary school level (teaching in two languages increased from 46.7% to 58.8%).

While the concentration on English has increased, this does not mean that the level in English has risen.

Apart from higher education graduates at the highest levels, the level of the population in language does not seem to have increased over the period. While it was barely maintained for English, it regressed in the other languages.

The report "Europeans and their languages" of 2012 already pointed to the very great inertia of the Member States. "Only eight Member States meet the EU's long-term objective that every citizen should be able to speak at least two foreign languages, with a majority of citizens meeting this requirement.

Between 2005 and 2012, in fact, very few countries made progress in terms of the number of people reporting being able to speak two languages: the Netherlands (+2), Latvia (+3), Lithuania (+1), Finland (+1), Germany (+1), Ireland (+5), and Italy (+6).

Thus, over the period 2005-2012, there has been a decrease of those able to express themselves in at least one language by 2 points (56%→ %), a decrease of those able to express themselves in at least two languages by 3 points (28%s’exprimer %) and a corresponding increase of those unable to express themselves in any foreign language by 2 points (44%s’exprimer %).

We look forward to an update of this data.

Overall, at European level, language education policies are a failure.

The causes of this failure are complex.

The first cause is probably that governments and policy makers stuck to the rhetoric and thought that, seen from a narrow economic point of view, English was sufficient and would impose itself.

This behaviour is a sign of great blindness and a total lack of European ambition.

We must therefore return to the fundamentals laid down in Barcelona and recalled at the European Council of 14 December 2017, but this time with a real linguistic strategy to which the Member States should adhere.

Here are five orientations that seem fundamental to us

1st guideline: confirm the objective of at least two European languages in addition to the mother tongue.

It is not a question of denying the worldwide usefulness of lingua franca, which is not limited to English. But ambition must be political and cultural and for an individual, the use of one or more foreign languages is not a purely food issue, even if this may be the case.

2nd guideline: Work on all levels of education. Aiming for all young people or as many of them as possible to be able to express themselves in at least two European languages requires action at all levels of education, from primary school, and even from nursery school to higher education, which must be included and not excluded (meaning only English) from the language education policy. The crucial objective that should be introduced as an objective, and not merely a recommendation, what is in the European Commission's proposal is the obligation of two modern languages at baccalaureate level, including vocational education. Given the great diversity of situations, it is difficult to recommend one model over another. It should be noted, however, that there are two models for achieving this. First, the model followed by Finland, Sweden, Romania, France, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Latvia and Estonia, where two languages are compulsory in all or part of the first cycle and in all the second cycle of the second degree, with around 80% of pupils and more presenting two or more languages in the baccalaureate. A second model where the second language is compulsory only at the second cycle of the second degree. This is particularly the case in Bulgaria, the French-speaking Community of Belgium and Austria.

3rd guideline: To be resolutely committed to "plurilingual and intercultural education", considering linguistic competence as a global competence that an individual manages throughout his or her life.

4th guideline: need to evaluate the only tangible element of the past fifteen years, namely the lowering of the age of first language learning, i.e. at primary school level (CT1). One can imagine that the achievements are very heterogeneous. When, in some countries, the number of hours per week is limited to one hour, while the number of hours that can be expected to produce a result is rather 3 hours per week, and when the teaching is given by untrained or poorly trained teachers, this can be considered a waste of public money.

5th guideline: Diversify. The goal is absolutely not to eliminate English, but to avoid aligning policies with those that offer the least language. Starting in primary school, in German, Spanish or Italian is absolutely not scandalous. Of course, these languages must then be continued from the first class of secondary school in parallel with an international language such as English. Indeed, the attraction for English does not come from the English language, and it is a pity, but from the international character of this language. Generally speaking, children who started with a language other than English quickly become as good, if not better, in English than those who had English as their first language.

The European Commission's proposal for a Council communication on languages should contain a real strategy, otherwise it could be discussed again in fifteen years' time.