Time to speak up for foreign languages


To Be Honest: A parent writes:I have three daughters in secondary school. They are all studying French. Every year we go to France because friends living there lend us their summer house. It’s a lovely arrangement and I always hoped that my daughters could benefit by practising their French each summer in between learning the language at school.

Each successive year I am disappointed by how little conversational French my daughters have when we are out and about in the local town.

I try to encourage them to order in French in the café and use their language in the shops. My friends sometimes visit us with their school-age children and again I encourage my daughters to use their French with their peers. They don’t. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but I have to say I’m very disappointed.

My eldest daughter will sit her Leaving Cert this year and has performed consistently well in French exams throughout her school career. She got an B in honours French in summer exams in fifth year.

My other two daughters also do well in the subject, at least on paper. This is the most exasperating aspect. How is it that a person who gets a B at higher level can’t go into a shop and ask for a loaf of bread?

My feeling is that confidence plays a big part; not that my daughters lack confidence. However the subject is taught, it does not seem to instil an enthusiasm for speaking the language, and openness to attempt real communication. A quarter of the Leaving Cert exam marks go on an oral exam and a further 20 per cent goes on a listening exam, but even preparation for this does not seem to encourage a willingness to use the language in any meaningful way.

I am also a product of the Irish education system, and I learned French for six years and did well in the Leaving. Despite this I am little better than my daughters, although I am more motivated to try.

Surely there must be a better way to give our children the gift of a foreign language? I can’t begin to count up the hours each of my daughters has spent in French class and at French homework and it seems such a waste that at the end of it all they can’t, or won’t, hold a conversation in the language.

Maybe, instead of taking down lists of French verbs and writing postcards to imaginary penfriends, they should spend their time in class just speaking, chatting, trying out their skills. I really hope that schools harness new technologies such as Skype in imaginative ways to expose students to the real business of language – expression and communication – rather than the present business of “getting through” the Leaving Cert exam.

* This column is designed to give a voice to those within the education system who wish to speak out anonymously. Contributions are welcome. Email sflynn@irishtimes.com

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