Saturday, January 2, 2016

Conversation with the Natives

In their constant struggle to improve the quality of education in this country, the relevant authorities forever miss the very point of it, create obstacles when they mean to smooth progress, ignore the people who actually know what needs to be done and how to do it, pay scrupulous attention to the interests of everyone but the children, for whose benefit the system is supposed to exist, and generally create more and more regulation and paperwork to less and less effect.

So it’s quite unusual for someone in government to say something intelligent on the subject. The surprising news in this case is that President Rajoy has suggested that there should be conversation classes with native speakers in schools, to improve the level of English. This is a good idea. If anything comes of it, it will be done badly, ineffectively and at unnecessary expense, but the idea is sound.

First, some background. The focus in Spanish schools is on grammar and vocabulary, because those who decide these things lack imagination and experience, it’s much easier to justify the marks you give if they come from written exams, and it’s difficult to do useful oral activities with groups of 30 or so pupils. Some would see these as problems to be solved. In fact, they tend to be seen as excuses not to try to do things better.

The aim of the recent Education Law is that pupils who leave High School at 18 should have a B1 level of English. For those of you who understand these things, that is Cambridge Pet level, and you will recognize the problem. It is not an independent user level. It is half a language, which is no good. You can’t actually do anything with it that a company, a University, or you yourself, can use. A B1 level does not allow you to answer the interview question ‘Do you speak English?’ with a ‘Yes.’

Also, needless to say, the aspirations of government when they wave their hands about and create these documents are not always fulfilled. Most children don’t even reach the low level that is set as the target. The result is that the great majority of Spanish youngsters leave school with a very limited knowledge of English, a bit of useless baggage that has cost them thousands of hours of wasted time, and doubtless many arguments and punishments along the way. This is not the way to do things.

The idea, though, that the purpose of language is communication, is not really recognized by the system in use. Anything that changes that perception is good. It really is like riding a bike. You are more likely to reach your destination if you actually have somewhere you want to go.

No comments: