May 30, 2008


I was at a miserably attended conference a short while ago on the mind-shattering theme "Why foreign languages are important." This was taking place in the most prosperous region of Italy, where international links are possibly at their strongest; not in a village in the tundra a century ago. The mainly teenage audience were barely stifling their yawns (they'd been forced to be there, I think) - it was something that didn't really seem to relate to them directly.

The speaker pointed out the huge advantages there would be in their future working lives, as well as their personal lives, if they were to spend six months or so in a foreign country once they graduate from High School. They would make genuine improvement in their knowledge of a foreign language (the speaker was dealing specifically with English) and they would make the kind of friendships that would broaden their horizons and deepen their understanding of 'life'.
At the end of this, an older woman (I suspect a teacher) stood up and made the point: if after 10 years of studying English at school they know next to nothing, how are they expected to even survive abroad? What kind of job could they get and what kind of social contacts could they make? You need at least a reasonable base to launch from - a base they didn't have.
"What's the solution?" she asked. Private language schools are too expensive for most families and the cheap courses organised by the town council or other organisations ivariably turned out to be a waste of time. 'Ah', said the speaker, and went on to say that the trouble was that schoolkids these days are simply not prepared to make the effort. In his day, (possibly twenty-five years ago?) he and his friends would spend hours listening to their favourite rock bands, writing down lyrics and working away with dictionaries until they made some sense of things. It was hard work but so what? Was there any alternative? And it was all so worthwhile too.
Is it, then, that these teenagers listening to this just don't care enough about learning a language? Is it that they would like to learn as long as it didn't require any extra effort and time? Is it maybe that after years of tedious and pointless English lessons they had come to the conclusion that either English was too difficult or that they simply weren't cut out for learning?

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