Language learning in Scottish schools

Marcel started Spanish this year (S3, i.e., the third out of the six high-school years), and he asked me to give him a few extra lessons, given that I speak Spanish and he isn’t too impressed with what he’s learnt at school so far.

His class don’t seem to be using a course book – they’re just using photocopies and the like – so I couldn’t just ask him what he’d learnt already. (As a parent, it would really be much easier if kids were given one book in every subject! Not only is it much harder to help them with homework if you don’t know what they’ve learnt, but it also makes it impossible for them to catch up if they’re off sick, and revision becomes dependent on good note taking in a way it didn’t use to be.)

I therefore decided to ask him some really easy questions, and I started by asking him to tell me the present indicative of the verb ser “to be”. I had expected him to quickly say “soy, eres, es, somos, sois, son”, after which I would have proceeded to some harder verbs or tenses.

However, he really didn’t know the answer. It wasn’t a problem with the terminology – I tried to ask him how he’d say “I am”, etc., but he didn’t know the answer. He claimed the teacher had shown them the forms once, but that he hadn’t had the time to copy them into his jotter.

I asked him what they were doing instead, and he said they were just learning words.

If it’s true, it’s absolutely ludicrous! Language learning is primarily about learning structure – the words are easy to add on later.

However, this episode suddenly made me understand an article I read six months ago and that I had dismissed at the time. It was an article in the Guardian about learning Mandarin in two days (hat-tip: Sabine Citron), and I thought it was just telling me things I knew already. The advice in that article is absolutely right for language teaching in Scottish schools, though: ‘The narrow set of nouns and verbs is an integral part of Noble’s technique. “One of the worst things you can do with language teaching is teach someone a massive number of words. It’s back-to-front – teach them to speak and then add to their knowledge. You have to become very fluent in a very small amount of the language.” Many students, he says, are led astray by learning numbers, colours or days of the week before they’ve learned any kind of framework with which to use them. “The nouns are almost irrelevant. That’s stuff you can learn yourself.”’

I don’t agree with everything in the article (amongst other things, I don’t think grammatical terminology is a hindrance so long as it’s used to convey structure rather than a goal in its own right), but the bit I quoted here I could almost have said myself.

If language teaching in Scotland has become a case of learning words but no grammar, they really need to go back to square one and start all over again. Their current approach just does not work.