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Force-feeding pupils a foreign language will never work

News | Published in TESS on 8 April, 2011 | By: Brian Monteith

We need to bring back to the agenda the real benefits of learning a modern language

I have never really been someone who harbours regrets about poor choices I have made in life. When one door closes, another usually opens - it is just finding the right door that can be the problem.

The Scottish Parliament elections are upon us again and I certainly had no regrets about leaving that much-troubled institution. I did not have a clue what to do next but have since settled into a role as a communications consultant working in Africa, the Caribbean and Pakistan, as well as writing from wherever I can rest my laptop. I am now in Tunisia, helping with the move towards a more open democracy that can be prosperous for all and not just the old ruling family.

Being in this former French colony made me realise that if I did have a regret, it would be that I did not take modern languages more seriously at school.

In the early Seventies, Porty High had more than 2,500 pupils and, in such a cauldron, I was not unusual in seeing my German class as a chance to show off and take the mickey. Paper aeroplanes with RAF roundels and messages that said “we won the war” were launched towards our German teachers in the mistaken view that this was funny - but the last laugh was on those of us who chose not to benefit from a second language.

Still, I thought I’d select German as I hoped to progress to university - ironically, to become an aeronautical engineer. It never occurred to me I could show off by being good at German.

I never sat my German exams. Now I struggle to converse in French, even though I spend much of my time in French-speaking countries.

While it is true that English is the business language of the world and its use is expanding at a great rate, being multilingual is a great benefit and one that we Scots should wake up to. It also helps the mind become more dextrous; learning one language makes it easier to learn another - and it helps one’s English.

The decline in take-up of languages (News Focus, 25 March) will not be reversed by admonitions from politicians, centrally-launched strategies full of good intentions or HMIE bullying schools into making them compulsory for S1-3.

Compulsory study did not prevent my unhelpful behaviour in the Seventies and I suspect it would ensure similar disruption in today’s schools. Any changes have to happen in primary, so that by the time pupils attend secondary, they want to study languages.

We need to remind people there is still a genuine benefit in learning languages - in work or play. Force-feeding will be counter-productive and only revive the old problems.

Brian Monteith, Political commentator.

Brian Monteith is a former MSP.


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