Friday, August 27, 2010

Why Britons should study foreign languages at school

The article below is an eloquent statement of the case for study of foreign languages. As it happens, languages are an enthusiasm of mine but I nonetheless doubt that the case for studying them is strong. I have some formal (but very minor) qualifications in Latin, Italian and German and I feel that the knowledge I have gained of all three has opened many gates for me. But I have a slight "gift" for languages and most people don't -- so I see no reason why most people should study them. I think that the study of foreign languages among English speakers should only be treated as an enthusiasm -- not a virtue

I suppose it's not entirely logical but I see the fate of a recent Prime Minister of Australia as instructive. Kevin Rudd's major subject of study at university was Mandarin Chinese. He basically knew nothing else. And he acquired a fluency that enabled him to speak mainly Chinese on his first state visit to China -- and having a blue-eyed blond person speak good Chinese to them certainly impressed the Chinese leadership. And any Westerner who acquires fluency in Chinese is certainly exceptional and to be admired.

Yet Australia's relationship with China did not prosper under Rudd's leadership and he was eventually booted out of office over matters in which his knowledge of Chinese did not help one bit. Had he studied Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk he would have done much better

I have corrected all the spelling mistakes below. I can understand an enthusiast for foreign languages being shaky in her own language but how did so many mistakes get past the DT copy editors?

by Cassandra Jardine

During the past week, I have felt like a dinosaur. One daughter has just achieved the A-levels that will allow her to study French and Italian at Oxford. Another is about to start A-level Spanish. The third is eager to do two languages when she enters the sixth form. Meanwhile, my 11-year-old has been at a language school in Touraine to learn some French. (Having glanced at his primary school exercise book where Au Revoir was spelled “Ovwa”, I felt he needed a spot of immersion.)

But it seems that I am one of a dwindling number of parents who think that it’s important to have even a smattering of a foreign language. The latest figures for GCSEs and A-levels show such a steep decline that German is all but kaput, and even French is heading for la merde - For the first time it has been booted from the top ten most popular subjects (replaced by Religious Studies). The number of students taking these languages at GCSE has nearly halved since 2002.

The decline in language A-levels is equally steep. Only 13,850 students took A-level French this year, a drop of more than 3 per cent in just 12 months. German has dwindled to just 5,548 candidates.

“Exotics” like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Polish are creeping up at all levels but the overall trend is down and many university departments have closed in recent years, due to lack of demand, leaving largely the Russell Group to keep the study of modern languages alive. Just 28,500 of nearly 2 million undergraduates at British universities are studying languages. Three quarters of them are women.

The British attitude to languages is polarised. On the pushy side we have parents enrolling their two-year-olds for lessons in Mandarin. Elsewhere, languages are seen as a pointless chore and little wonder. As far as children can tell from their diet of films, music and television everyone can speak English. On this island, we rarely come across the 93 per cent of the world population that doesn’t share our language. Nor are we aware that 80 per cent of internet content comes in other languages. So what’s the point of struggling with irregular verbs, and speaking in a funny accent?

According to the Annual Language Trends Survey for 2009, just 41 per cent of comprehensive school pupils took a modern language at GCSE. It is selective and private schools that are keeping languages alive. At A-level, the 7.7 per cent of children in private schools are now so over-represented, that only 11 of 31 Cambridge colleges have a majority of language students from state schools.

The rot started long before a foreign language ceased to be compulsory at GCSE in 2004 - and has spread. Like fish stocks, levels are now so low that Mike Kelly, Professor of French at Southampton University and Director of the UK Support Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Study, says: “If the clock is ticking, we are getting close to midnight. We had hoped that the decline in modern languages had bottomed out, but it’s not getting better.

“Free choice has meant that languages are often set against subjects like art or drama, and are pushed further down the list of preferences. Languages are a long term business: you don’t get quick rewards. It takes three or four years to get to a decent level, whereas in other subjects you can have fun without long-term preparation.”

Language teaching can, indeed, be deadly boring. Pupils at state primary schools must be offered a language option, though they don’t have to take it. More than 90 per cent now do, but the teaching, in my experience, is desultory: hence my 11-year-old being parcelled off to France for a two-week confidence-boosting session before joining a private school. “I won’t be able to communicate with anyone except my one English friend,” he wailed on arrival - and this after being 'taught’ French over several years.

Even at secondary school, the approach can be stultifying. In the interests of relevance, weary teenagers practice talking about their holidays, families and hobbies year after year. For GCSE they learn fifty such answers by heart to parrot in the oral exam. A child with a good memory could pass without understanding a word of what he or she is saying.

French came alive for me when I was sent on what I tell my children was a “proper” exchange holiday. Landed in a family where no English was spoken, I had to up my game. Nowadays, for fear of causing alarm, the standard language study trip involves spending all day sightseeing with English classmates, and has almost no observable impact except on the wallet.

And yet if we continue to let modern languages decline, employers say, we would be making a grave mistake. “In today’s world English graduates without languages are at a real disadvantage.” says Anny King, French-born director of the Centre for Languages at Cambridge University. “The English think: 'I’m all right Jack, because everyone speaks English,’ but there are a lot of countries where you are lost if you only speak English.”

The EU and the UN are trawling for British people with command of foreign languages, and the jobs aren’t all in interpretation, translation and teaching. Languages are essential for research. Olympic hurdler Sally Gunnell recently bemoaned that she hadn’t a language to help her promote the 2012. “It’s also an excellent way into banking,” says David Shacklock, director of Euro London Appointments. “There’s a huge demand for German, French, and Chinese, but there are jobs out there for computer games testers in all languages. First and foremost you need a skill, but an A-level language will improve your job prospects.”

The booming third sector also needs linguists. “If languages continue to decline, it will be difficult for us to find the right people, especially if the Government cracks down on the number of non-EU people we employ,” says Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, where 80 staff speak 25 tongues. She finds that languages are not just useful in themselves, they are good for the brain. “Young people with languages have a greater mental agility - as well as a broader appreciation of the world.”

Mike Kelly (who speaks seven European languages and a smattering of Japanese) agrees. He wants to increase the range of language choices in primary schools, but isn’t fussed about which. “Once you’ve learnt one language, other than your mother tongue, it is much easier to learn another because it activates a different part of the brain. One is enough to get you over the surprise that people from other countries see the world in different ways. It’s not just about language but a sense of time and etiquette. In English we get to the point early in a conversation; in China, you build up to it. If you final words are, 'You must come to dinner,’ the Chinese think that’s the point, not a polite flourish. Monolingualism locks you into a single way of being.”

The Coalition government is committed to a curriculum reivew. The time has come for a return to compulsory language teaching at GCSE, Anny King believes, and a more “ambitious” approach involving literature. Kelly wants a voluntary - but more extensive - system of teaching and testing, making more use of the Languages Ladder system of stepped tests, like music grades. It will, he hopes, encourage those who speak languages other than English at home to realise their assets. “If we don’t,” he says, “we are dead meat on the world job market.”

Students (and parents) with Oxbridge ambitions might also note that they are missing a trick. One in two applicants for modern languages is offered a place at Oxford, while the success rate for Politics, Philosophy and Economics is just 7.6 per cent. A friend has watched three children sail into Oxford on modern languages - and on to good jobs in industry, the civil service and the arts.

Tough love, maybe, but sending a child off to learn languages seems like a good idea. When I greeted my 11-year-old off Eurostar, I asked him if he had learnt any French. “I suppose it’s not such a stupid language,” he replied. One day that child may get a job.


Teachers unions and civil rights groups block school choice for black students

Teachers unions, like the National Education Association (NEA), and many civil-rights organizations inadvertently sabotage the potential of black males by perpetuating failed educational visions. Black males will never achieve academic success until black parents are financially empowered to opt out of failed public school systems.

The American public education system is failing many groups, but none more miserably than black males. The numbers are shocking. The Schott Foundation recently reported that only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school on time, compared to 78 percent of white male students. This revelation is beyond disturbing because it exposes the fact that many public schools serve as major catalysts for the desolation of unemployment and incarceration that lies in many black boys’ future.

In many places the disparity between whites and blacks is nearly unbelievable. In Nebraska, for example, the white/black graduation gap is 83 percent compared with 40 percent and in New York 68 percent compared with 25 percent. The way urban city school districts fail black males is more disconcerting considering that black professionals are in charge. Urban districts are among the worst at graduating black males: Atlanta, 34 percent; Baltimore, 35 percent; Philadelphia, 28 percent; New York, 28 percent; Detroit, 27 percent; and St. Louis, 38 percent.

There are surely many reasons for such failure, and family breakdown must rank high among them. Schools may be powerless to transform black family life, but they should not be left off the hook for turning in a dismal performance. In a recent interview, Dr. Steve Perry, principal and founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., repeatedly places the blame for the black achievement gap at the feet of the partnerships between the teachers unions and the NAACP, “a civil-rights relic.” The places where black students excel, says Perry, are those where students have access to choice. Sadly the NAACP and the NEA have long undermined the push for low-income black parents to exercise freedom to choose the best schools as a national norm.

For example, even with mounting evidence demonstrating that single-sex education for blacks males from low-income households represents one of the best opportunities for graduation, the NEA petitioned the Department of Education in 2004 to prevent single-sex options from becoming nationally normative, balking because “the creation of an artificial single-sex environment [will] ill prepare students for life in the real world.” What? The Eagle Academy for Young Men, a charter school in the Bronx comprised of primarily black and Latino students, the first all-male public school in New York City in 30 years, boasts a high school graduation rate of 82 percent. This summer, Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy, with a 100 percent graduation rate, graduated a class of 107 black male students all of whom are attending college in the fall.

The NEA exists, it seems, only to overfund failed systems and the non-performance-based salaries of adults at the expense of black students. Nothing prepares black males for life in the real world like graduating from high school and attending college, yet the NEA consistently lobbies against parent choices that lead to black male success.

Civil-rights groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, recently released a joint statement objecting to the Obama administration's education reform proposal, which includes the closing schools of failing schools, increasing use of charter schools, and other commonsensical moves toward choice and accountability in education. These groups reject Obama’s so-called "extensive reliance on charter schools," expressing dismay about "the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities."

Even though there is overwhelming evidence supporting the success of charter schools for children from low-income households, the civil-rights groups resist the opportunity for parents to exercise freedom to choose those schools. Perry highlights the cost of such blindness, observing “that our nation’s urban public schools have prepared more children for poverty, the penitentiary, and premature pregnancy than they did for college.”

Even though charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit programs reflect some progress, black parents need brand new and creative options that empower parents with absolute freedom to choose the best schools. In addition to school closings and faith-based options, “mass firings” like the ones in Washington, D.C., “home schools,” and other bold and innovative measures, are all important components of rescuing black males from the betrayal of teachers unions and civil-rights groups that refuse to acknowledge the dignity of low-income parents by blunting their right to choose what is best for their children. As long as teachers unions have influence in the black community and in institutions pledged to black empowerment, and black parents are not financially empowered to opt out of failing public schools, black males are doomed.


Australia: Universities teach knowledge but not wisdom (?)

What a lot of Stalinist crap! Who is to say what wisdom is? Some people think global warming is wisdom. I think the Bible is humanity's greatest store of wisdom. So is the Bible going to be taught to all university students? Fat chance!

Schwartz has always had grandiose and only semi-coherent ideas and has been dogged by controversy wherever he went. I would diagnose him as an egomaniac, if not a psychopath

Modern universities are neglecting the teaching of wisdom to the detriment of its students, says vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz.

In his second annual lecture last night, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University argued that worldwide the higher education sector was focused on teaching practical skills necessary for a career, with disastrous results. The financial crisis, the parliamentary expenses scandal in Britain and the home insulation program were cited as evidence of educated leaders making choices lacking in wisdom.

Professor Schwartz said a fixation with money had led to the decline in teaching students how to think broadly. "We once were about character building but now we are about money," he said at the university's North Ryde campus.

He said university courses had become more vocational with courses in golf-course management or hairdressing-salon management alongside the traditional subjects of law and pharmacy.

Professor Schwartz used the lecture to unveil a proposal to allow final year students at Macquarie to tie together the theoretical and practical sides of what they have learnt.

One of these capstone courses will be called "Practical wisdom", which the vice-chancellor nominated himself to teach. All new students will also be required to study both science and arts to broaden their education.

Dom Thurbon, a panellist for the lecture, said the premise forwarded by the vice-chancellor was an attractive but dangerous generalisation. He said the wisdom gained by a student depended on several factors such as degree choice and exposure to certain teachers.

"There is a a trend, however, towards a more instrumentalist view of education," said Mr Thurbon, the co-founder of ChangeLabs, an organisation that builds large-scale education and behaviour-change programs.

"The drive to commercially ready degrees means less time is spent on broad philosophical underpinnings of education. Ironically industry is genuinely needing people with a cross-functional expertise."


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