Today’s particularly idiot complaint is that modern language GCSEs are too hard for the current snowflake generation. Well of course modern languages are hard you fools. It takes us 14 years to learn our native language to the level we start to study GCSEs in it so what the hell makes anyone think the same can be achieved in two hours a week for two years?
But of course matters are worse than this, for the people complaining are also insisting that everyone else in the university system – actually, including themselves – are idiots. Given modern universities this may well be true but it’s still an odd thing to be claiming in a letter to The Guardian.
The education secretary is right that exams are “inherently stressful” – but for students taking a modern foreign language (MFL), the stress is disproportionate. They will have to sit excessively difficult exams and accept that their grade may well end up lower than their performance deserves. In a recent BBC survey, 76% of English schools reported that the perception of languages as “difficult” was the main reason behind the drop in pupils studying for MFL exams. Where’s the incentive to choose a language if you’re systematically made to feel rubbish at it?
But this problem is so easily solved. Those who work in universities just go “Ah, yes, modern languages exams are hard. A B in French is like an A in history therefore” and we’re done.
Prof Katrin Kohl Professor of German, University of Oxford
Prof Claire Gorrara Professor of French studies, Cardiff University, and chair of the University Council of Modern Languages
Renata Albuquerque Widening participation manager (languages & community), Soas University of London
Prof Seán Allan Head of the School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews
Dr Inma Alvarez Doctorate in education programme leader, The Open University
Beatriz Arias Neira Language tutor in Spanish, University of Bristol
Dr Rocio Baños-Piñero Associate professor in translation, UCL
Dr. Catarina Barceló Fouto Lecturer in Portuguese studies, King’s College London
This is apparently too difficult a thought for these and the rest of the 152 academics to grasp.
Is the marking tougher?
Evidence that it is hard to get a good mark in French, German and Spanish GCSEs is well documented. On average, pupils get half a grade lower than in other Ebacc subjects. The introduction of new language GCSEs in 2018 appears to have made matters worse, with pupils getting up to a whole grade lower in their language GCSE than geography or history. For example, pupils who get a 6 in history would only get a 5 in French.
In schools in England over the past 15 years, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 48%, with German down 65% and French down 62%. The drop accelerated after 2004, when languages were made non-compulsory subjects at GCSE.
Well, consider this. The world speaks English, there’s no need for us to learn other languages. Therefore, being rational beings, we don’t. And for when we need actual translators and interpreters there are always the native language speakers who are floating around the country. Or those rarities – like my cousin – who are actually good at other languages. To the point that the ICC uses him to interpret in and out of languages he’s not even native in. Oddities but they exist.
For everyone else why make the damned effort?
French A-level entries in England have plummeted from 15,000 to 8,000 in a decade, German entries are now under 3,000, and university languages departments are struggling or closed.
Ahhh, there’s the reason. Our 152 academics are employed in university language departments. Schoolchildren must learn languages in order to provide employment to the people who teach languages to schoolchildren. To be honest it’s possible to think up better reasons for the allocation of scarce resources than that, even to insist that this is a bad justification.