Outclassing natives 1

March 10, 2006

The article "Overseas students better at English" (March 3) repeats complaints that have been made for 30 years.

Most high-achieving students who speak more than one language are likely to have greater accuracy in the second language than the average native speaker because they are educationally selected, tend to try harder and are often better taught.

Anecdotal evidence shows that the native English-speaker is more fault-tolerant than the native German or French-speaker. This appears to be a consequence of a reluctance to penalise defects in primary and secondary education. Similar observations could be made in commercial and social life.

Until the 1970s, English education was marked by social class: public school boys were brought up to rule; the others were expected to be ruled.

Conservative teachers instilled standards to the extent required for the expected destinations of their students; socialist teachers instilled standards, but sought to develop abilities without crushing talents with class-bound discipline. The aristocrats never bothered much with standards as their role was taken for granted.

All this has changed, and even public schools are concerned about their place in the league tables. We are slowly becoming bourgeois and so less fault-tolerant, which is good for our science, our engineering and our economy.

Robert Clark University of East Anglia

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