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Can we improve language learning in Britain?

Posted by Frank Preiss, on 11 July 2017. Comments: 0

European Schoolbooks has been promoting European languages for over 50 years, and all that time the biggest obstacle has been lack of motivation among both learners and the educational system.

A practical and inexpensive solution has been available for at least half that time: the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Unfortunately, too few people in the educational world have heard of the CEFRL. And of those who have many think it's something decreed by the European Union and judge it accordingly.

We in ESB are naturally Remainers: I believe Brexit is already doing Britain enormous damage. But this is not about Brexit. The CEFRL is a project of the Council of Europe (CoE), not the European Union. It owes its existence to the work of John Trim, who previously worked on the Cambridge Proficiency syllabuses for English.

Over the last 25 years the CEFRL has been adopted by almost all the 47 member countries of the CoE and a growing number outside Europe.

In those countries language courses and textbooks are almost always aligned to the six levels of the CEFRL, from A1 beginners to C2 advanced. Learners in those countries can quote on their CVs the level they have reached, knowing that those levels are recognised everywhere. 'GCSE German grade C' is rarely helpful.

UK students are at a serious disadvantage in the European market place for jobs. Already our diplomatic efforts in Europe are thwarted by our shortage of linguists. And for what it's worth, Brexit is unlikely to promote the cause of English in the 27.

My proposal for the recovery of language learning in the UK is therefore to align key stages 3 and 4 to the CEFRL. This would need some major changes to the GCSE and A-Level exam syllabuses, but there is plenty of research and experience to draw on.

Brexit or no Brexit, the big European nations will surely support this project; they are all concerned to preserve and extend their languages and cultures. And a growing population of motivated British language learners would help to counter the rather bitter and aggressive tone on both sides of the Brexit debate.

This project would provide motivation in different ways: improved job and educational prospects are just the most obvious. If the best universities were to make a language at level B2 an entry requirement for all subjects, this might alleviate the current dirth of A-Level languages candidates. That in turn would widen the pool of PGCE students who could themselves teach a language at keystage 1.

But the most important thing is that the original motivation will come from the learner, not from a statement of national needs and policies.

There is a lot more to say on this subject, but I hope this is enough to start a conversation.


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