Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Language of Politics and the Politics of Language

What does language learning have to do with politics? A lot! The European Union has 20 official languages, if I counted them right, with more on the way. Those languages are, in alphabetical order, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish. Have I left any out?

Why do the Europeans not settle on a single official language for the European Union? For reasons of national pride, of course. Can you picture the French government willing accepting English as the sole European official language? Or, worse yet, German? Unofficially, however, much of the communication among European countries is carried out in English.

Language is taken very seriously here in France, where I am studying at Stendhal University in Grenoble. The French love their language and culture, but years ago they realized that French was no longer the international language, and now most French spend years studying English. I purposely used the word study and not learn, because those years of schooling seldom produce graduates who can express themselves in English. The French study modern languages the way other nations study classical languages: They analyze the target language without learning to communicate in it. Classroom discussions take place in French, of course. Rare is the foreign language class that is actually taught in the target language.

Because the French do not use the target language in the classroom, they do not learn to think in it. They think in French and translate. If a person cannot think in a language, that person cannot speak it. Translation is a poor way to teach a language.

The French government, realizing that something has to be done to bring French education at least into the Twentieth Century, if not the Twenty-first, has proposed a package of school reforms that would put more emphasis on computer skills and genuine language learning, and it wants to change the method of evaluating pupils. At present, many courses are graded on a single, written examination taken at the end of the term, and the examination does not always reflect the material that was taught in class. In courses where there is supposedly “continuing evaluation,” that evaluation often consists of another single test, administered shortly before the final exam. In other words, there are two final examinations instead of one.

The French reaction to the proposed reforms? Rebellion! French pupils have been taking to the streets to stop traffic, blocking the entrances to schools so that more dedicated pupils cannot enter, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

I cannot claim to really understand the reluctance of so many French pupils to change the school system. Perhaps they are right, and the proposed changes are not what is needed. However, something needs to change. Although French pupils score decently in international comparisons in the fields of science and mathematics, their language skills are abysmal, even in their native language. In fact, when it comes to the ability to read and write, French pupils score at about the same level as Americans. Sadly, that is nothing to be proud of.

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