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The Key is in the Attitude of the Learner PDF

By Paul Whitelock

alt June 5 – 11, 2009

 As a former OFSTED schools inspector for languages I have been fascinated by the articles about language teaching which have appeared in SUR in English over the last couple of weeks. 

Whilst Steve James’ original article was very amusing, I’m afraid it was rather full of stereotypes and inaccuracies, and doesn’t coincide with my experience of observing language teaching for 15 years in England, and also in the Netherlands and northern Spain.

First of all, the Spanish are as bad at languages as we are, possibly worse.  But at least here in Spain, there is a political will to do something about it, unlike in the UK where successive secretaries of state for education have consistently undermined the position of language teaching and learning in English and Welsh schools (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different and, may I say, better policies and systems), to the extent that pupils can abandon a foreign language for good at the age of 14. As the rest of Europe goes forward in developing the quality and quantity of language teaching, the UK is going backwards, fast.

In Spain it is now a requirement that a foreign language, usually English, is taught in all Spanish schools from the age of three.  While this is admirable it will be some years before there are sufficient teachers competent to teach languages on such a grand scale.  In Andalucía, the rise of the sections bilingues, or bilingual schools, is to be marvelled at, although the supply of class teachers competent to teach their subject in a foreign language remains problematic.

It is arguably true that the best linguists in Europe are the Dutch, and I have observed English teaching first-hand in Dutch schools.  The teaching was no better or worse than the teaching I have observed in English schools over many years, but the attitude is different.  As an eminent Dutch professor told me: “We are a small country which speaks a language that is pretty useless outside Holland.  We are also a trading nation, so it is absolutely crucial that we speak other languages well.”

Not only that, in the “grammar school” stream in the Netherlands up to 40% of the curriculum is dedicated to languages.  Compare that with England and Wales, where the science and maths lobbies ensure that their subjects dominate the secondary school curriculum at the expense of subjects like foreign languages, the humanities and the arts.

Peter Sanderson is right too about the policy of subtitling rather than dubbing TV programmes and films.  The exposure to English that the Dutch get has a huge impact on their language learning. In Germany, Spain and the UK everything gets dubbed, and look at the effect that has had.

Berry J  Prinsen is right in saying that English is in the same language family as German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us Brits to learn.  As an experienced former teacher of French, German and Spanish, I would argue till the day I die that Spanish is the easier, for the reasons stated by Steve James, ie Spanish is phonetic with a 100 per cent consistent spelling and pronunciation system.

No, it’s not about the politics or the competence of teachers, it’s about the attitude of the learner.  I think the Wittgenstein quote mentioned by Berry Prinsen is so apt:  “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

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