There is already a significant percentage of KS3 curriculum time allocated to the study of English, and English teachers will put in place the necessary support to ensure that ’s/he makes progress there. Learning a foreign language is an essential core entitlement for all of our pupils and we wouldn’t see a relative weakness in any subject area as a suitable reason to deprive any pupil of their right to learn a foreign language. Singling pupils out to follow a different curriculum in the early stages of secondary school can have a negative effect on their self-esteem. All pupils are capable of learning a foreign language and doing anything to make them believe otherwise is unhelpful, to say the least. In fact, language lessons can provide less confident students with a real boost as they are often all beginning with a similar level of knowledge. The fact that we develop many skills in language learning that are essential for progress in other subjects, such as memory, problem-solving and thinking skills means that learning languages contributes much to the child’s overall ability of learn. It is not simply a matter of the foreign language words they acquire.
English is a very important world language still in the 21st century but it definitely isn’t enough. It’s still the case that only 6% of the world’s population speak English as a first language and that 75% don’t speak any English. Perhaps even more important than this is that anyone who goes to school in countries where English is not the first language spends a significant time learning it. That means that our young people increasingly have to compete with those from other countries who have at least one language in addition to English. Perhaps it’s ironic but nowadays the fact that everyone has English makes it even more important that our young people learn foreign languages.
This can be the perception at first and I can understand that your child feels a little worried. But in fact there are several children in the class who didn’t have the opportunity to learn any languages at their primary school and they are beginning from scratch. Your child has the advantage of having developed some of the essential skills involved in learning a foreign language, for example, attentive listening, noticing, memory and pattern-finding. These will transfer extremely well to his/her language learning here at secondary school. The teacher is aware that the class has mixed experience and will compensate for this in the early stages by revising the basics too. Soon I am confident that your child will feel happy that s/he knows at least as much as everyone else.
The best support that you can give your child is your enthusiasm and encouragement. For that no language knowledge is needed. Anxiety is contagious but if you are positive and supportive, reassuring him/her that s/he will be fine and advising him/her to seek the support of the teacher with homework, this will be all that is needed. If you have the time to spend a few minutes sitting alongside and going through the words s/he has to learn, this would be incredibly beneficial too. It is hard in the early stages for pupils to know for themselves when they know the words or not, and having someone who can test them provides the reassurance that they need, not to mention the fact that it’s far more fun to learn like that. Just as you worked with your child on tables and spellings, you can do the same routine with language vocabulary. If you are unsure about pronunciation then you just say the English – you’ll be able to recognise if your child is saying the correct foreign word back to you. If you would like to be able to pronounce the foreign words, then why not come to my Parents into Languages evening and in one hour you’ll have the confidence to do exactly that.
At your son/daughter’s age I planned to be a vet! One important thing to mention is that our hopes and plans can change as we get older and we shouldn’t at this early stage in education close down any avenues that might be useful to us in later life. And of course, whilst it is great for young people to have plans and aspirations, it is also a fact that many of the jobs that our children will end up doing as adults do not yet exist. The world is changing rapidly and the best that education can do for its young people is equip them with skills rather than knowledge; skills that they can employ in any new situation. Language learning has a significant role to play in developing generic skills that will stand young people in good stead to meet the challenges an ever-changing world will present them with. For example, language learning develops the skills of memory, attention to detail, noticing, pattern-finding, creative thinking and reasoning. It is difficult to imagine any jobs that wouldn’t require these skills.
Achievement in languages is measured in terms of performance in four skills and these are assessed separately. These are listening, speaking, reading and writing. The ability to spell accurately is only assessed in one of these four skills: writing. Those learners who do not spell well can excel in other aspects of language learning, such as speaking and understanding. Obviously there are speakers of French, German, Spanish and every other language who do not spell well and this does not prevent them from speaking their language well. Furthermore, your child is beginning his/her foreign language learning at a different stage in his/her educational development and may find that s/he is now much more able to remember spelling patterns than when learning English spellings in primary school. Foreign language learning can sometimes be a second chance at acquiring a certain skills set. And because all learners are at a similar early stage in their foreign language learning, teachers are able to focus explicitly on memory strategies to improve accuracy in spelling and these skills can be transferred across into other subjects, so in fact you may find that the work your child does in languages actually helps improve the accuracy of his/her English spelling.
It’s very difficult to be sure these days that learning a foreign language won’t be either necessary or useful to a chosen career path. There are some jobs where it’s an integral part, some where it is a useful bonus and others where it is just an advantage because it indicates a general ability level and open outlook. One thing that you can be sure of – it is never a disadvantage to have studied a language.
In today’s world I think learning a foreign language is something should be seen as much an essential skill for life as say, driving or ICT skills. It is always something that you would want to write on your CV, regardless of the job you are applying for. It says something about the individual’s outlook; that s/he is flexible, adaptable and open to new challenges. But more than this, there are two key things that make language learning essential rather than optional: first, it remains the case that 75% world’s population speaks no English and second, the fact that most young people who are non-native English speaking are ensuring that they learn it, means that English is no longer a significant advantage to any British person entering the job market. If all those competing for the better jobs in a country can speak English, then those with other languages will have the edge.
Languages get more enjoyable as you get better at them. Your son/daughter should find that as s/he is able to express him/herself better on a wider range of topics s/he gets more of a sense of achievement and appreciates what s/he is able to do independently with the language. Also, the GCSE course now offers much more choice and flexibility in terms of the main topics that s/he will concentrate on for speaking and writing so s/he will find it interesting. .
I am not sure that languages are the most difficult subject to do well in – I think a lot depends on the learner of course. However it is true that, relative to other GCSEs, language GCSEs are more difficult than most, probably most comparable to Maths GCSE. But if languages are perceived as difficult, they may also attract greater recognition from Higher Education providers and employers – it stands to reason that they will be valued more highly as a result of the perceived difficulty. And in addition to the academic value, we shouldn’t forget that learning a foreign language is a life skill, akin to ICT skills or driving a car.
It’s very difficult to predict GCSE grades before the pupil has even started the course. If the data indicate that your son/daughter will most likely achieve a certain grade, this is by no means a given. Such data should at best be viewed as helpful in predicting overall achievement for a whole cohort of pupils, but are far less accurate when applied to individuals and individual grades. This is because they do not factor in motivation or effort. In my experience, these are the greatest variables in achievement in all subjects, but certainly in languages, where raw talent or ability is just one part of the picture.
And as to the question of whether a grade lower than A in a language is worthwhile, I think we have to consider how foreign languages are perceived by Higher Education providers and employers. I am convinced that it is never a disadvantage to a young person’s career prospects to have studied a language at GCSE.