Caution over drop in numbers sitting language exams

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:

​Another fall in the number of pupils taking French and German exams does not reflect an overall decline in the health of languages in Scottish classrooms, according to a leading linguist.

French National 5 entries fell by about 10 per cent on last year, while at Higher the level was 17.5 per cent below 2016. German Higher entries were down 20 per cent on two years ago.

Spanish and Mandarin have made modest rises overall.

However, Fhiona Mackay, director of SCILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, said it was misleading to focus on this criterion alone because primary schools were “normalising” languages from P1 in a way that is widening exposure hugely.

“The French figures were disappointing, no doubt about it. But to say languages are disappearing from our schools is very far off the mark and really unfair on our teachers.

“Of course I would like to see more youngsters choosing languages because I fundamentally believe that is a good thing. But it needs to be voluntary – so we need to evaluate the barriers and do more to remove them.”

Before 2013 it was compulsory to take at least one language up to the end of S4, making comparison with recent figures misleading.
But in the last few years the national 1 + 2 policy has offered all pupils some basic teaching in two languages from the first year of primary, rather than as a “bolt-on” in the last one or two years, Ms Mackay added.

“It’s not just the responsibility of schools – government, business, employers, broadcasters all have a role to play. Even with television, for instance, if you look at the BBC, they tend to dub over foreign languages rather than use subtitles.”

In the UK we are both “greatly advantaged and greatly disadvantaged” by growing up in an Anglophone country, she said.

“When you learn a language, you are also enhancing your mother tongue literacy, developing interpersonal skills and intercultural sensitivity, and creating a more global outlook. We can’t allow our young people to be disadvantaged by missing out on all that.

“But it’s far from doom and gloom at the moment.”


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