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Reform of modern language teaching : Who said « diversification » ?

Last Updated: 25 Sep 2015

Reform of modern language teaching : Who said « diversification » ?
The reform of secondary school decided by the minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is, regarding language teaching, a very good example of conflicting policies which proclaim ambitions without providing the means to achieve them.
The aim of this policy is to improve the language level in two ways :
- in primary school where languages will be taught from the first year instead of the second.
- in secondary school where the teaching of the second language will start in the second year instead of the third.
In its first version, the project provided that the pupils would have the same number of hours spread over three years as they had in two years formerly, but there was such an uproar that the two hours a week instead of three have now become two hours and a half.
Thus we do have an increase of the number of language teaching hours over the length of school attendance.
By teaching modern languages as early as the first primary school year, the pupils benefit from 54 extra hours of language teaching, actually mostly English, with 1h30 a week for 36 weeks.
By teaching the second modern language in secondary school over three years instead of two, with 2h30 a week instead of 3h, the pupils benefit from 54 extra hours of language teaching. Though the teachers noted that 2h30 a week is under the minimum required for effective teaching.
Besides, the minister published on 26 August a circular relative to the academic maps for foreign languages showing the will to offer linguistic diversity and to propose “a choice of foreign languages as early as the first primary school year”. This diversity should particularly strengthen the teaching of German. It is written that “any pupil having studied a foreign or regional language other than English in primary school should be able to pursue the study of this language in a bilingual class in secondary school”.
We should welcome these noble intentions.
Nevertheless, these measures are largely compensated by contrary dispositions or the absence of accompanying measures.

It is amazing that foreign languages should not be taken into account in the competitive examination of primary school teachers. It is only noted that “a good level in a foreign language is also expected”. It must be added that for the time being no training in languages is included in the training to become a primary school teacher. For example in the Versailles academy, the teaching of English is organised for the secondary school teachers and the teaching of German is only a project. In other words, less is required of the future primary school teachers than of those studying for the baccalaureate.
As regards primary school, it is difficult to believe that the pupils will benefit from quality teaching and that classes in other languages than English can be organised, except in Eastern France. We have reasons to think that this circular relative to the academic maps for foreign languages is a way to answer the European commitments about early language learning. We know that since the development of language teaching in primary school, no positive effect has been noted on language proficiency, mostly in English, at the beginning of secondary school and even that the proficiency is lower.
Developing the teaching of languages at school without training the teachers is absurd and a waste of public money. Or shall we say that the Education Nationale expects the primary school teachers to act on the belief that foreign languages have a strategic role. This is a rather unprofessional attitude of the Education Nationale which seems to see languages as decoration more than as a major challenge.
As regards secondary school, the effect of the suppression of the bilingual classes is that pupils whose family is not rich enough to afford private schooling are thus deprived of foreign language excellence. The bilingual classes were both a road to excellence in languages and a diversification lever, in so far as there was a continuity of teaching between primary and secondary school thus allowing a diversity of language teaching as early as primary school.

By suppressing the bilingual classes and omitting to give the means of a quality and diversified teaching at school, the ministry contradicts itself and kills all possibility of diversification, thus securing the almost complete monopoly of English. No doubt, in suppressing the bilingual classes, the ministry makes a financial choice but it is also the choice of inefficiency.
The road to quality and efficiency imply another strategy :
- training of the primary school teachers ;
- reinstatement and development of the bilingual classes ;
- general diversification teaching plan with academic language maps on three to five years.
Of course, there is a cost, but this the cost of ambition and an investment for the future.

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