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Language education in Europe and Russia: Teach more or teach better?

September 20, 2010

In my previous post I suggested that knowing one foreign language was enough if you knew it well. A mankind of polyglots would be fantastic, but if everyone succeeded in immersing him/herself into at least one foreign culture, it would already make this world a better place.

If you think about Europe, however, the demands are higher. With the borders open and with 27 nations sharing the same political and economic space while trying to preserve their linguistic and cultural identities, I believe knowing more than one foreign language must be a requirement for everyone from primary school onwards. Because of the closeness and the ease of communication between the countries, Europeans can hugely benefit from learning several languages of their neighbors and, through the languages, learning their neighbors’ cultures.

So what is the situation like today? I have glanced through some facts about language education in Europe, and it is not the same across the Union.

In nearly all European countries, according to the 2008 report, “Key data on teaching languages at school in Europe,” students are expected to begin foreign language instruction in primary school, which is a great thing. Students in Belgium and Spain are often provided such instruction at the pre-primary level. In Luxembourg, Norway, Italy and Malta the first foreign language starts at age six.

Malta is a veritable nation of polyglots. Beginning from primary school the children learn several languages. Watch this report from France 24:

http://www.france24.com/en/20090127-malta-nation-polyglots-?quicktabs_1=0

In Luxembourg, French and German are taught from the primary level, and almost 100% of the adult population are trilingual (the third being their native Luxembourgish). Of course, many of them know English as well. Here is more info about Luxembourg:

http://www.unavarra.es/tel2l/eng/luxembourg.htm

In Belgium’s Flemish community at least two foreign languages are taught in secondary school.

On the other hand, Ireland remains the only country where foreign language education is not compulsory. The Irish and English languages are taught but they are both official languages of the country.

In the UK, students have recently been allowed to opt out of studying foreign languages as early as at the age of 14. They have eagerly grasped the opportunity. They obviously believe that everyone in the rest of the world speaks English anyway. Employers say this will damage British students on the international jobs market. More about it here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/the-language-crisis-in-british-schools-2061211.html

And how are things in Russia, which is geographically part of Europe but is really in its own category? One foreign language is compulsory here from second grade of primary school, and some elite schools offer two or more foreign languages. But thinking about Russia makes one think that quality matters at least as much as, or even more than numbers. I studied English in the USSR from age 11 to age 17 and I could hardly speak any of it when I was leaving school. I could write some sentences and read them, I could translate the texts written in Rusglish from the appalling textbooks we were using with the help of the mini-dictionary provided at the end of the same book, I knew a bit of grammar theory by heart and I always had ‘A’s (‘5’s in our system). Today, things have changed little apart from the fact that kids study English from age 8 and still can’t speak it by age 17. True, in this generation a lot more students actually end up speaking English by the end of their school life, but that is solely due to traveling, the internet and the self-education, and more often than not it happens despite school. Most teachers of English, who work for meager salaries from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, are elderly women who can’t speak the language well enough themselves (and some of them can hardly speak it at all – believe me, I’ve checked).

What is the conclusion? It’s very simple: There should be a balance between quality and quantity. Since the quality of teaching foreign languages appears to be generally higher in Europe, it’s increasing the quantity of languages taught in schools that tops the agenda there. For Russia it is definitely increasing the quality.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. jacobtullos permalink
    September 22, 2010 4:41 pm

    I can really see where you’re coming from here. The balance between quality and quantity—I’d call it “the quantity, but of the right kind of stuff.” I’m personally in favor of a more input-based learning system, where the students spend most of their time listening or reading, trying to understand the content. But I also know that a good teacher can use alternative teaching methods to facilitate a qualitative learning environment.

    Your balance concept also applies another way. It isn’t good enough to say, “We need more quality teaching.” We also have to demand “less poor-quality teaching.” A class room that is boring and completely grammar-based will train the minds of students that learning any language HAS TO BE boring and grammar-based. In other words, it’ll turn them off to learning any language in the future, even if the teacher or method is better.

    • September 23, 2010 8:22 am

      Thanks for your comment Jacob. I think you’ve made an excellent point . All the boring teaching does turn students off language study. Communicative approaches are very effective these days as students are keen to use the language they learn to exchange meaningful information with other people and to socialize. Yet, many teachers (especially here in Russia) belong to the older generation and are out of tune with their students’ demands, so they keep teaching English or another foreign language as a set of rules to be memorized and texts to be translated.

  2. September 23, 2010 2:28 pm

    Alex, great topic. I thought I’d expand it a bit and talk about education in the United States and China…
    I grew up in a household where Cantonese and Khmer were spoken on a daily basis during my childhood; as soon as I began school, these two languages were pushed to the back of my brain and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten. Considering all the reasons and factors for this, the two that I personally think are most responsible for my lack of lingual ability in either language is a) my parents’ desire to learn English, which prompted my siblings and I to speak more and more English at home and b) my own self-consciousness at being “different” and not being able to understand that “different” should have been embraced.
    I moved to China almost two years ago and have spent a great deal of time and energy in education here. The number of people I meet who have studied English for more than a dozen years and can’t spit out a sentence without stumbling, mumbling, or tripping over themselves is astronomical. On the other side, there are kids, recent grads, adults who speak so fluently, with only the slightest hint of an accent, it’s inspiring and impressive.
    Quality of teaching, of course, definitely plays a significant role in language-learning, but just as important is the quality of learning. Something can be drilled into you everyday, and still, after years of “learning,” something in the process remains broken, so the student remains unable to absorb, process, or use the information taught.

    Sorry for such a loooong comment, but like I said, great topic 🙂

  3. September 24, 2010 6:28 am

    Melissa, thank you for your very interesting post. The way you missed the opportunity to be trilingual from childhood I think is very typical of immigrant families who want to join the majority in order to be successful. I do think the benefits of knowing other languages need to be advertised on a national scale in English-speaking countries – then maybe more families will speak their national languages at home, and when the kids grow up they’ll have better international job opportunities with their language skills.

    As for the quality of learning, it definitely depends on the student because you cannot force someone to learn a language. But then if you begin studying the language from, say, age 8, you are unlikely to have a whole lot of external motivation, so the person responsible for making you want to do your best, the one who helps you gain basic communication skills, is the teacher. As long as most teachers in a country have poor language skills themselves, use outdated methods and lack motivation, kids who can speak fluently will be a rare exception rather than the rule and the number of those who “can’t spit out a sentence without stumbling, mumbling, or tripping over themselves” will always be greater.
    Thanks for your comment again.

  4. Michael Farris permalink
    October 1, 2010 11:01 pm

    It’s important to remember that foreign language teaching is not generally going to flourish where native language teaching isn’t very good.

    Some years ago on linguistlist there was an informal survey on native language education around the world and the immediate, inescapable conclusion was that native English speakers have the worst native language education going.

    The main reason is that the models of traditional grammar (developed for native English speakers) just don’t work (because they’re mostly nonsense) but for political and cultural reasons they can’t be replaced by something more rational.

    On the other hand, the grmmar models used in most ESL is far superior to anything natives ever get, but lots of luck in actually using that as the basis of the curriculum.

  5. October 2, 2010 12:58 pm

    Thanks for your comment Michael. As a tutor in an online ESL teacher-training course, with more than half of my students being native speakers, I was astonished to discover how their knowledge of their own English grammar was inferior even to the knowledge of some of my intermediate students. It doesn’t go for all native speakers but for a large percentage. Even after taking our special Grammar Awareness Module they are still confused about lots of things. It was a shock to me at first, but now after 8 years of working as a tutor I am more or less taking it for granted.

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