The Point of A-Levels: Recite or Think?

Panic stations, it's A-Level results day! As young lives are changed by external examiners throughout the country, get yourself prepared for media outets claiming that university is a money-driven racket, peddling pictures of pretty girls (even if that's now a post-old hat, according to the fathers of pointing out the inherent sexism), and shouting shock and horror at grade erosion.

Most of these news are familiar to an education professional like me, but this year the numbers in take-up for MFL (that's Modern Foreign Languages, and really means "countries near Britain") were enough to make you drop your pain au chocolat in your Weißbier. The Telegraph summed it up quite beautifully by stating that Languages in the UK seem to need a "eurozone-style bailout". I'm not a fan of throwing money at problems, but there is plenty to be paid for here: funding for ad campaigns, teacher training, exchanges and cool materials are essential. How can the motivation get ramped up, how can A-Level MFL look more interesting?

a smart and happy londoner. Image credit: hammersmithandfulham on flickr

a smart and happy londoner. Image credit: hammersmithandfulham on flickr

The key is in the exam you train for, because languages are about countries and cultures, and they are not boring! I remember so many things in my language learning history that made the language come alive, from learning Latin (yes, Latin!) through the make-up tips of Ovid to finding out where Paraguay is because they made me do a presentation about it in Spanish.

Today I wondered what it actually is that they test in these A-Level papers, so I went to the AQA website for a look. And you know what, the topics aren't all that boring. There was the youth crime rate, Swiss pop music, eating disorders, friendship...all  relevant stuff. But the thing that struck me is that the papers don't seem to leave a lot of freedom for students to express their own opinions. You are tested on understanding a text, and on understanding what people say. You answer multiple-choice questions. You need to answer questions in German, but  there aren't many which go deeper than "What is being discussed in the text?". Why not ask an intelligent 17 year old to tell us their own opinions about youth unemployment, or discuss their own experiences of family life? If you're only taught to express yourself in ways that are expected from you, how will you get interested in a real discussion?

One further striking omission in these A-Level papers was the lack of any German literature. When I did my Abitur in languages, I had studied Camus, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Salinger and loads more. It's not a big assumption to make that someone who loves language will love reading, and something interesting to read is going to motivate you more. Books, poems, music and films from a country will be what really gets you into the culture (see my post on immersion). And once you've read about a character's motivations and actions in the foreign language, you might be keener to speak about why they act the way they do. Why not include some cool stuff in MFL A-Level?

In conclusion, I think what is making languages look boring is this rigid attitude to teaching how to parrot and use stock phrases, rather than teaching them as the road that will take you into the heart of a different world. Can we throw some money at promoting how awesome the Erlkönig poem is please?