Speaking in tongues


TO BE HONEST: An unheard voice in education

A student writes:I am coming to the end of my business degree and, like many others, I am facing pretty bleak prospects. My fellow students have spent much of our final year working on our CVs and conducting forensic examinations of the recruitment market we are about to enter. I can’t afford to do a post-graduate course, so I have been trying to add extra value to my CV by other means.

One of the issues that keeps coming up is languages. Many employers seem to be looking for graduates with languages and I’m starting to regret that I did not take business with a language. I thought about taking a language course in the evenings, and I figured that French would be the obvious choice, since I spent six years learning the language in secondary school.

I kicked off the project with a trip to Paris over Christmas, to visit an old school friend who lives there. I asked her if she would take me in and speak French with me for a week.

I couldn’t believe how little French I had. My first experience attempting the language was lunch in a café – I couldn’t read the menu, I couldn’t order a coffee and I couldn’t ask for the cheque. I had naively assumed that my Leaving Cert honours French would have equipped me for these most basic of tasks. When I got to my friend’s apartment she greeted me in her Irish-accented French and asked me how my flight went. I was totally at a loss. We got to talking (in English) about our schooling, about the roughly three hours of French we learned, every week, for six years. We talked about the exams we sat; both of us took honours French and I got a B2.

My school friend got an A2. She says that when she started studying French at college she felt like she was totally unprepared.

If languages are so important to employers, and teachers have up to 100 hours a school year to teach a language to a student, why are we coming out of school without the ability to read a menu? Why was I able to get a B2 in honours French if I can’t even order a cup of coffee? My nephew is in primary school and I recently heard that he was completing part of his compulsory swimming syllabus in the classroom.

I had to laugh – if you want to learn to swim, you need immersion. The way we are teaching languages in our schools is not working for the great majority of us. Until we find a way to teach languages for meaningful communication and use, it’s just lip service.