What follows below is the case I made last year when campaigning for Arabic to be included as one of the mainstream languages in English primary schools. The first section is about Arabic and the rest is about languages in school more generally.
There were two government consultations about very significant changes to the English curriculum and what follows is my response to question 2 of the DfE gov consulation into the proposal to make languages compulsory at Key Stage 2. That consultation resulted in the decision by the government to proceed with its proposal to require primary schools to teach one of the following languages at Key Stage 2: French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin or Ancient Greek. Although campaigners on behalf of Arabic were unsuccessful in persuading the government of the importance of including Arabic in this list, I hope that this is a development which may still be possible in future. I hope the case I make here will help persuade policy makers to reconsider!
Do you agree with the Government’s proposal to require primary schools to teach one or more of French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish or a classical language (Latin or Ancient Greek) at Key Stage 2? Why?
No, not entirely. I wholeheartedly welcome the decision to make language teaching compulsory, but suggest the following 4 amendments to the proposal.
The list of languages which may be taught as the pupils’ 1st foreign language at Key Stage 2 as it stands should include Arabic, for the reasons outlined below.
- Arabic is not merely a community language of heritage speakers in the UK but a major world language in terms of population, and its economic and political role. According to Ethnologue data, worldwide, Arabic is the 4th most widely spoken language as a 1st language (Chinese, Spanish, English, then Arabic. By contrast, Italian is in 19th position). With 221 million speakers, this makes it the native language of 3-4% of the population of the world. But as a 2nd language and universal language for Muslims it is much more widely used. http://www.ethnologue.org.uk/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=size
- The Arabic script is used for many other languages, including Persian and Urdu, making it a much more accessible language to the many pupils in the UK with a family background from the Asian south continent. Like Latin and Greek, it was the language of a major historic empire, and as such Arabic has filtered into the majority of languages spoken in Asia and Africa, making it an extremely important springboard for travel, business and studying other languages of the Middle East and Asia.
- In terms of UK business needs for languages, Arabic is in the top 6, again ahead of Italian. According to the CBI report 2011, almost a quarter of UK employers have a demand for Arabic skills (22% for Arabic, behind French 61%, German 52%, Spanish 40%, Polish 29%, Mandarin 23%). By this measure Polish would also be a sensible language to include in the proposal. http://www.cbi.org.uk/media/1168506/exports_report_a4_final_indd__2_.pdf
- According to the Language Trends survey (2008-11), Arabic is already taught at 5% of maintained schools and 11% of independent schools, and at a large number of supplementary schools. There is a strong and growing demand for the language and a lack of trained teachers in maintained schools. Making the language one of the approved list for KS2 would safeguard the progress already made in raising standards of Arabic teaching and would ideally result in more PGCE teacher training places
- As a community language it should be recognised and valued in schools. Islam being the 2nd most prominent religion in the UK (2.71% of the British population, according to UK Census 2001), Quranic Arabic is being studied by Muslim students anyway at Islamic supplementary schools – why not allow them to study the corresponding modern language in school in a secular environment too instead of requiring them to study a 3rd (or 4th language if they are speaking another language at home in the family)? This freedom would improve their chances of general success in school and their enjoyment of their studies, as they would not struggle with so many languages at once. In those communities where Muslim Arabic speakers are prominent, the availability of qualified teachers should mean that the availability of teachers should not be an obstacle.
- It would be the language of choice of Muslim free schools. If the government supports the establishment of free schools – should they not have the option of studying a major world language that also happens to help Muslims understand their faith? Another aspect to this is support to the UK government’s PREVENT strategy aimed at preventing radicalisation and terrorism within Muslim communities. Might not a greater understanding of Islam beyond the effort to memorise and recite (but not necessarily understand) the Quran encourage a more confident population of British Muslims, less tempted by radical ideologies? http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/prevent/prevent-strategy/prevent-strategy-review?view=Binary
- Like Chinese, it is unlikely to be offered at many schools as the only foreign language offered in primary and secondary, but for those students who do have it on offer it is an amazing opportunity with a strong potential for rewards in future education and employment, precisely because it will be studied by fewer school leavers. In terms of language careers, the country will easily produce enough advanced French, Spanish and German linguists, but we need more highly trained speakers of many more world languages. In a globalised world, diversity is extremely important to the UK economy.
- If difficulty is a factor for consideration, I would argue that many myths about the difficulty of Arabic are unfounded. I cannot comment on the relative difficulty of Chinese grammar, but am confident to assert that the Arabic script is considerably easier for pupils to learn than Chinese characters, and not much harder than Greek. It is a highly phonetic language with very clear logical patterns to word formation. In terms of grammatical structures, compared to German, Latin or Greek, Arabic is a very accessible language at the CEFR A1 level. Arabic grammar does get more complex at a higher register and in Quranic/ classical Arabic, but these finer details which are not used in modern standard Arabic anyway and do not need to be covered by the beginner and intermediate level learner.
Secondly, I do not agree with the principle that there should be a restriction of languages which may be taught as the pupils’ 1st foreign language at KS2. The possible reasons I see for this restriction are for the government to be able to guarantee funding for teacher training in these core languages and for publishers to focus training materials on a manageable number of core languages. The provision of trained teachers in a limited number of core languages is a reasonable requirement, however I feel a better way to construct the guidelines would be to say that:
a) Any language can be offered at primary for which there is the possibility of continuity at secondary to CEFR A1 level. Therefore primary schools should not work in isolation of the secondaries but in conjunction with them. The guiding principal should be: every language is an asset, but the full potential of this asset is only really achieved through consistency and structured learning to a defined level (eg. CEFR A1).
b) Preference should be for this set of core languages (the government’s chosen 7 plus Arabic) but the availability of staff and teaching resources is likely to sway schools in this direction anyway. In areas of high populations of certain community languages, including Welsh, the option should be available for pupils to study their community language to at least CEFR A1 level in all skills. They should also have the option at KS3 of beginning a 2nd foreign language, especially if their study of their community language does not represent a significant challenge to them. However, there will always be many students who struggle with literacy in English and their home/community language, and insisting on them beginning an additional language is an unnecessary burden: let them excel in their native assets first.
c) funded PGCE training should be provided for a limited list of core languages (French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, Latin, Ancient Greek and Arabic), while unfunded PGCE places should be available for a wider range of languages commonly spoken and taught in the UK (currently referred to as ‘community languages’ and also including Ancient Greek and Latin). Potentially this kind of PGCE training might only be provided in London or on a distance learning basis as there would be fewer schools where mentoring and observed teaching practice could take place.
Thirdly, I agree with extending the concept of language to include ancient languages and to move away from the limited concept of Modern Foreign Languages. However, I am not sure that Latin and Ancient Greek need to be included in the list of core languages.
And fourthly, – no offence to any Italian speakers! – I question the choice of Italian as one of the core languages, at the expense of Portuguese, Russian and Polish which I would argue are equivalent alternatives on the basis of commercial value to the UK (BRIC countries and major EU populations), world population and representation in the UK, and role in international politics (Russian as the 5th UN language, Portuguese as an EU language and that of Brazil, one of world’s biggest economies). I suspect that the inclusion of Italian is based on the current teaching population’s ability to teach it rather than an aspiration for future teaching provision.
More consultation should be carried out into UK policy on preferred languages at a strategic, economic level: UK private and public sector employers should be consulted and not only representatives of schools and educational establishments. The deciding factor should not be which languages would schools like to be able to teach or be most ready to teach in the near future, but rather which languages do we as a country need speakers of (at various levels) and need to plan into our long-term educational strategy?