For generations English Schools have taught French as standard. Many primary schools offer the language from an early age, with private prep schools often devoting serious curriculum time to the subject.
It has been a few years now since people started questioning this age-old tradition…so what has changed?
More than a few of us will remember French at school: learning how to say “my dishwasher is broken” or “I play football in the park with my friends”. But what good did those 10+ years of learning accomplish; how many of us could hold a reasonable conversation over the channel? Even the people who continued French to A-Level or even degree standard have trouble after the sands of time have passed. Add that to the lack of French spoken (18th in population by language), and the case for French starts to unravel.
And unravel it has! Even in 2010, the number of students taking French GCSEs had fallen by nearly 50%. Pupils are realising that taking French at school does not result in fluency and that even if it did – it is not that useful in outside world!
The main contender is now Mandarin Chinese. It is by far and away the most spoken native language and it represents a key route into dealings with the new global superpower. Mandarin is also significantly different to European languages in structure, grammar, and alphabet. This means that formal education is an almost necessary starting place. I’m sure you can guess what le weekend means – but could you make a stab at 周末?
The problem is that whilst French is going through the decline it probably deserves, the uptake of Mandarin is not filling the gap. The current government has just invested £10m more into the aim of taking the number of pupils learning Mandarin from 1,000 to 5,000 by 2020. This is slightly concerning after David Cameron, speaking in 2013, expressed his desire to take the number of students learning Chinese from 3,000 to 400,000 by 2016. Unless something extraordinary happens, Mr Cameron’s ambitious target might be missed by 99.75%...
Unless something changes soon, we will have a generation with no language skills at all. Though English is likely to remain the lingua franca, the benefits of having an open mind and understanding of languages is an important quality to lose.