Students 'scared' of foreign languages

By Sarah Cassidy Education Correspondent

10 March 2003

Britain's brightest linguists are shunning university language degrees because they believe that the subject is boring and difficult and are terrified of speaking to foreigners in their languages.

A study for the Anglo-German Foundation found that students were "scared to death" of the prospect of oral examinations at university while several said they would feel "embarrassed or foolish" if they had to speak spontaneously to French people in France.

Young people did not believe that a language degree would guarantee them a good job on graduation and thought they could never complete with a foreigner with fluent English in the jobs market.

The popularity of language degrees has plummeted since 1992, according to the report's author, Catherine Jane Watts, of
Brighton University's school of languages.

The number of undergraduates specialising in French, German or Spanish has dropped by more than 17 per cent between 1996 and 2000, falling from 1,541 to 1,272.

Dr Watts warned that the Government's policy on languages looked set to exacerbate the problem.

In December, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, confirmed plans to abolish from next year the requirement for pupils to study languages beyond the age of 14. Instead, every child should have the opportunity to study a foreign language from the age of seven although it will not be a compulsory part of the national curriculum.

Dr Watts said: "The proposal does little to promote continued modern foreign language study in Britain at a time when positive messages on learning languages could not be needed more."

The report will make depressing reading for university language departments and calls into question whether they can supply the next generation of language teachers.

Students argued that modern foreign languages were not seen as an academic subject in their own right but as an optional extra qualification to support other skills. Pupils told researchers that an A-level in a foreign language would be enough to get by in the workplace even though they admitted that their speaking skills were weak.

Young people complained that the topics and vocabulary they had been taught at A-level were boring and dated while their teachers' grasp of the foreign languages was "rather old-fashioned". One student who studied A-level French complained: "All the French teachers who have ever taught me said they've learnt French many years ago and when they go to France they can't understand a word they're saying."

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