Emphasizing Oral Skills in Language Education
For once I agree with Sarkozy on something. He recently announced an “emergency” plan for changing the way languages are taught in France. He recognizes that the French system currently emphasizes too much grammar and memorization when basic communication skills such as listening and speaking should be the focus of language education. Even though most French students learn two foreign languages from the 6th grade on, by the time they finish high school, they still cannot actually speak the language. Another recent report indicates that 41% of adults in France report speaking no foreign languages, which ranks France as the 6th worst country for adults speaking another language (behind Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, which reports a whopping 78% of adults who only speak Hungarian).
After observing and “assisting” two years of middle & high school English classes in France, I can definitely say the teachers did not care so much for teaching listening skills or even exposing the students to authentic language which is absolutely necessary to improve pronunciation and spoken fluency. Of course, with 30-36 students in each class that only meets a few hours a week, it’s a nearly impossible to have every student practice talking. But that’s what homework is for. This leads into questions of motivation and autonomous learning, which are often very different for each student – especially French students who must take two foreign languages even if they don’t want to.
Some schools have been experimenting with using more audio resources for teaching English. I came across some reportages on using mp3 players outside of class to listen to an audio file in English and then the student records his or her reaction to it, or tries to write down the transcription, or answers comprehension questions, etc. The schools provide the mp3 players (since not all teenagers have one already), and this way more expensive language labs or even computers are not actually necessary.
Since my university most likely won’t spend money on mp3 players (because they won’t spend money on new computers…), I prefer to have my classes in the one computer room we have on campus even though the computers are from the late 90’s and we’re stuck using the 60-second-maximum Windows recorder. I’ve been asking for administrator privileges so I can install Audacity, but no luck so far. In my special English class for exchange students, I’ve been spending a ridiculous amount of time preparing interactive lessons using audio and video files so that the students can listen to English as much as possible. Our program does include many language labs that are audio-based as well, but the lecture courses remain writing and grammar-based and the grades for these lecture courses count more than for the labs, which seems a bit backwards to me.
But should all students be forced to learn English? My university doesn’t even offer a degree in a single foreign language. Students must learn English and another language. It’s English/Spanish, English/Italian or English/German and nothing else. Sarkozy was mostly referring to English when he announced the new plan because of its status as a global language vital to international business and also because he’s still upset about France’s ranking of 69 out of 109 on the TOEFL test. But some French people would prefer to learn other languages in order get jobs, such as German. The region of Alsace has launched a new campaign to get people interested in learning German because there are several jobs in the area that go unfilled because they cannot find enough French-German bilinguals to hire. (The official site is here.) German is actually the most widely-spoken language in Europe. There are 100 million people (or about 1 out of every 5 people in the EU) who speak it as their native language as compared to around 75 million for English.