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New modern language A Levels could reinvigorate passion for French, German and Spanish

Three works by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez are suggested for Spanish A Level. Leonardo Munoz/EPA

As part of its revamp of the A Level curriculum, the government has launched a consultation on the way modern languages are taught at sixth form. If introduced, the changes herald a real boost to the teaching of A and AS modern languages, that could help reinvigorate subjects which have been waning in schools and universities.

The proposals take in those of wider reports on A Level content by the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCB), set up by the Russell Group. It is proposing “significant changes… designed to produce a rich and rewarding qualification”. The report focuses on the three modern foreign languages most widely taught in the UK – French, German and Spanish – but also on ancient Greek and Latin. In the executive summary, the report notes that the panel was guided by the view that:

“The study of modern foreign and ancient languages at AS and A level is valuable in developing communication skills and critical thinking, in gaining insight into other societies and cultures that can only be achieved through the language and in enriching the lives of students.”

Such a view goes well beyond the simple hope of attaining a degree of fluency and passing an exam. It hints at the kind of passion and life-enhancing effect that language-learning can have on students, and is followed by proposals to change content in a way that will: “produce a rich and rewarding qualification, with an appropriate level of cognitive challenge and suitable for progression to university study or to employment.”

Boost to language students

In language departments in UK universities we are painfully aware that there has been, as the report states, a: “grave decline in the numbers studying modern languages beyond the age of 16.” The number of universities offering degree programmes in modern languages has dropped significantly in recent years.

In 2007, there were 214 universities offering degree programmes in French, German and Spanish; by 2014 there were only 153.

The ALCB report highlights five weaknesses in the current A Level syllabus, and sets out ideas for revised content to tackle them. The weaknesses include the fact that topics studied at A Level tend to be so general that they don’t relate directly to the society of the country where the language is spoken. There can also be overlap of topics covered at GCSE. Insufficient importance is given to accuracy, particularly grammatical accuracy, and students come away with few, if any, transferable critical skills.

Few academics in language departments would disagree with this. We regularly see high-achieving A Level students who have only a minimal knowledge of the country or countries where the language of study is spoken, or who have limited understanding of how the language works.

Students often have little knowledge of key elements in a country’s history – such as the French Revolution, or the fact that France is a republic. They also continue to struggle with grammatical accuracy, and use English structures when writing in the language they are studying.

Better understanding of culture

The proposals for the revival of A Level are directly in line with what most, if not all, academics in language departments would see as essential.

They recommend the promotion of accuracy in conjunction with fluency and the study of a language in the context of the society and cultures of the countries where it is spoken. They also offer a way to create a rounded, challenging and rewarding learning experience, encouraging students to develop linguistic strategies and metacognition – better awareness of the way they learn. If this can actually be translated into practice, it would indeed produce a generation of language learners who would understand better what they are doing and why.

More crucially, they might actually see the value of language learning in a wider context, and want to take it further.

The new proposed structure for modern language A Levels has two parts: the first part focused on a knowledge, understanding and critical analysis of the culture and society and a second part on language.

The first part would be based on “themes” and “works”, all directly relevant to the country or countries where the language is spoken. It could include full-length literary works and films, as well as discussions of politics, current affairs, history and intellectual cultures both past and present.

Molière makes the grade. Tartuffe1739EnglishEdition" by Moliere & John Watts, Private Collection of S. Whitehead

The ALCB has suggested a list of films and literary works, including both more accessible “classics” such as the 1669 play Le Tartuffe by Molière to contemporary works such as the 2006 film Paris je t’aime. In French, there are works by Francophone African writers such as Guinea’s Camara Laye, and Spanish writers from Latin America such as Gabriel García Márquez.

The second part would cover the four key language skills, and would also include translation and individual research. It is an ambitious programme, but a rich and rewarding one, which would prepare students for language study in higher education, and would also prepare them to live and work at some level in a country where the language of study is spoken. This has to be beneficial for all young people, whatever other subjects they may go on to study.

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