28 August 2010


British pupils should give up learning French

If you hadn't noticed, French has gone into massive decline since languages stopped being compulsory at GCSE in 2004, now at nearly half the level it was before

As someone who had to go through the torment of five years of 'teaching' of French, I can only celebrate this and be envious of the lucky youngsters who can actually learn instead

I don't say this as someone who found it 'hard' as the BBC describe - I found it a doddle to get my B, the trouble is I can't actually speak it, or I can a bit, and I'm pretty good at reading it, but I can't work out a thing a Frenchman says

As Paul Noble points out in the article - we aren't taught conversational French, the bit that's actually got  a tangible benefit, sitting in a room with 30 people constantly writing out verb forms is a complete waste of time - the only students who were ever any good at speaking French were those who had a French-speaking background, the teachers all loved them of course, 'why can't you all do this?' they'd ask but no-one else stood a chance of being able to converse

Looking back, it's fairly obvious the teaching system was fatally flawed, mostly because you can't teach dozens a language at once, the small groups in the options of Spanish and German spent most of their time in conversation with assistants (who for some reason, were absent in the much bigger French classes) and seemed to be far more advanced than us. That, and my later experience of my friends teaching themselves languages like Spanish and picking it up within months proved to me that every student in Britain had been wasting 5-odd hours a week for five years of their lives

I don't think students are put of by the difficulty of gaining the GCSE (I certainly didn't perceive difficulty levels at the age of 14) , but the fact that they would've done three years of nonsense, whereas virtually all other subjects provide some sort of benefit - like being able to write or do maths, would put them off - if you could actually speak French at the end maybe they would bother - but if memory serves, not a single non-French speaker came out of my GCSE French class being able to communicate in it, it's a joke subject

Then we get onto the point of doing French - it's great for your holidays to the south of France, but what else? Some niche jobs in business and politics require it, but that's about it - and whilst it has been cemented as a language of diplomacy historically, it's now mostly an excuse for French arrogance that only they get their little language on Eurovision and the Olympics

And yes, it is a little language - the BBC points out that it's spoken by 200 million people, although it's only a first language to about 130 of those, this is roughly double the population of the native country, and the vast majority are in western Africa

It's beyond question that English, Spanish and Mandarin speakers vastly outnumber French speakers, whether first tongue or not, whilst Hindi and Russian are probably spoken by more people, Portuguese is probably a similar number and arguably more important economically

And yet we allow the French language to dominate international bodies simply so a few people in Paris can lean back and smirk as they get a special translation just for them, not bad for a country that lost all its power 200 years ago and left little discernible impact outside parts of Africa and Canada

Why should we help with this French ego stroking? By all means allow kids to learn it, some will need to, but forcing them was making the teaching of it pointless, and keeping out the world's more important languages (which are now soaring in schools) simply because France was near and had a plentiful supply of teachers was foolish economically - even German would be more useful, and it's far easier to learn, sharing a lot of roots with English


  1. we aren't taught conversational French, the bit that's actually got a tangible benefit, sitting in a room with 30 people constantly writing out verb forms is a complete waste of time.

    That is so true, (as is the rest of your post) the amount of time I had wasted at school learning how to pass an exam at French and I still can't really speak a word of it.

    Conversely I worked in Germany for 3 years in my mid 20s and not only learnt how to get by but be pretty proficient.

  2. Might I suggest teaching Esperanto rather than French? What do you think?

  3. I suppose Esperanto would be easier to use and could help learn languages later (possibly), but I'd argue it's never going to be a true universal language and considering that very few people can speak it it's best to stick to English

    Personally I think we should all speak latin