The SQA are pretending all languages are equally hard

Originally uploaded by albertogp123

My dear wife recently pointed out to me that you can download past papers from the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s website.

I have in the past only seen the French Intermediate 2, and I wasn’t very impressed. I therefore decided to have a look at the various language exams available.

Much to my surprise, it appears to me that all the language papers seem to be designed to be equally hard to a native speaker. In other words, I think a French native speaker would rate the French paper (PDF) the same as a Chinese speaker would rate the Chinese paper (PDF). For comparison, here are the Spanish, German, Russian and Urdu papers.

Now, many linguists would agree that all languages are equally hard to learn as a first language (i.e., children take more or less the same time to reach perfection no matter what their native language happens to be).

However, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the difficulty of learning a foreign language depends strongly on its similarity to your native language (and any other language(s) you might have learnt).

This means to an English speaker, the foreign language that is easiest to learn is probably Dutch, but choosing from the list of languages offered by the SQA, it’s entirely rational to start with French and then do Spanish as the second foreign language.

Doing Russian or Chinese would be crazy, because one would have to reach the same level in a much harder language in the same amount of time.

The way I see it, the exams should be based on the amount of language one can be expected to learn during the amount of lessons offered in a typical school. This would mean that the Chinese exam to a native speaker would look infinitely easier than the French exam, but there’s no real alternative — the language exam I had to sit after one year of full-time Japanese studies at university would have appeared incredibly easy to a native speaker, but otherwise nobody would have passed it.

The way the SQA are doing it, pupils get punished for wanting to learn a difficult language, which surely isn’t right.

I can’t help thinking that the Chinese and Urdu exams are mainly offered for the benefit of the Chinese and Pakistani communities in Scotland. I don’t have anything against this per se, but surely it’s a bit unfair that Léon can’t sit a Danish Higher to get an easy A the same way as Marcel has benefited from having grown up speaking both English and French. How large does a ethnic minority need to be before it can get a Higher in its language, I wonder?

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