Last night my friend Antoine brought one of my daughters home after a day of canoeing he had arranged for several families and their children. Being French he stayed for a quick apero - three hours. We all got talking.
He was class teacher to our daughter last year, had one of his children in the class too and has another in his class this year. One of the things that was apparently on the curriculum was a couple of hours English a week. The question arose because with the beginning of this school year a few days ago teachers have been explaining what was going to happen this year. This year's teacher has told them that there 'might' be about half an hour of English per week. That is completely out of synch with the curriculum. It is not that we mind, but what we talked about last night was the fact that France is seriously shooting itself in the foot with language teaching, not just English of course. As Antoine said, teacher training offers a bit of this and that but not enough specialisation to allow for core subject teaching like languages. He does not feel he is up to teaching English and the woman whose class my daughter is in now is similar.
He added that if he was in a city school, say in Bordeaux since it is closest, then the chances of decent language teaching go up. Getting a job in a city, if he had wanted, is not that easy. I perfectly understand his point. All of the families who went out yesterday are 'half' wanting me to help. To that end I am 'half' willing and have even bought a couple of books to help me revise proper English grammar and so on. I have no language teaching experience at all and have certainly never taught young children. But it is a handful of families around one small town in a whole country.
I looked at eurostat to see how foreign language learning is in France, but had to look at all of Europe. Things are improving, but the stats given are based on secondary education and have two major flaws. They do not show the success (exam results, etc) of the languages learned, nor do they show the capacity to use them beyond school. Look yourself - http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Foreign_language_learning_statistics
Socio-linguists are emphatic about language teaching as early as possible with unlimited possibilities to improve after the initial stages are learned. If primary school is not hitting the mark, then how can secondary possibly catch up? The irony is that Antoine's ex-wife, a secondary language teacher, is often here separately and is of Spanish origin, therefore teaches Spanish locally to a small number of pupils. She could also teach English but is employed to teach on a wider curriculum and has Spanish as part of her duties, so her language training is largely wasted.
How did this conversation arise last night. It was because of a recent BBC World News item about the enormous percentage of children in China learning English at primary school who are capable of conversation before going on to secondary school and then are beginning to learn second and even third European languages. They knock all of Europe into the long grass. France is lagging behind, but I shall not try to pretend the UK or many other countries are doing fantastically better. However, at a point in time where languages are potentially an important part of the future of our children's lives and since they are on the curriculum, what is standing in the way.
Rather that sitting on the fence twiddling thumbs, goverment should be doing something decisive. At a time when Europe has several elected heads of state who do not have other languages than their own and have spoken about their regrets, is that not a good time for reflection and changeing it?