Language students lack je ne sais quoi

May 12, 2000

Modern languages teaching methods in schools are leaving new undergraduates ill-prepared for degree-level study, a conference heard this week.

University language departments are finding that too many of their recruits do not have sufficient knowledge of grammar to meet the academic demands of their first year.

This criticism coincided with a report from the Nuffield Foundation, which called for a requirement that all university entrants should have foreign-language ability. It also said that university language teaching needs radical reform.

Delegates at the conference on the future of language teaching at Aston University heard how grammatical skills have declined since schools started using the "communicative" approach to language teaching.

This puts the emphasis on learning a language by using it in everyday situations and is designed to make language learning more interesting.

Languages lecturers say the emphasis has swung too far to oral practice, leaving many students struggling to attain the required grammatical standards.

Gertrud Reershemius, conference organiser and a German lecturer at Aston, said higher education and schools needed to find a compromise to ensure basic skills are acquired without making lessons boring.

"We have students in their first year who have quite serious problems with grammar and structural knowledge. But it is not all the schools' fault, because they are working to the National Curriculum and using textbooks that are tied to the latest theories."

Christian Frankrych, German lecturer at King's College London, said a review of the role of grammar instruction in language learning was needed.

The Nuffield Foundation report talked of a deep crisis in higher education, as underfunded universities close their language departments, and called for funding reform.

Inquiry chairmen Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd say in the foreword:

"Higher education is trying to run an ambitious 21st-century programme for languages, but is hamstrung by outdated funding and management structures that mainly reward specialism and traditional areas of research."

The report criticises the closure of language departments and departments that train language teachers. Among the reforms it calls for are a national agenda for languages in higher education and a universal entitlement for undergraduates to learn a foreign language as part of their degree.

Government should drive forward a national strategy on language learning including appointing a languages "supremo", it says.

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