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Our kids need to be more like Greta Thunberg - and I'm not talking about climate change

PUBLISHED: 17:52 15 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:52 15 May 2019

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who speaks fluent English

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who speaks fluent English

Jean-Francois BADIAS

Rachel Moore says our children are in danger of being arrogant little Englanders if they don't learn to be more like Greta

Parlez-vous Français? Hablas español? Sprichst du Deutsch?

Or, do you simply speak English?

If you speak any language other than your mother tongue, consider yourself among the elite.

The shame of Brits is that we don't embrace learning languages. We don't really "do" "foreign" languages. Why would we? When the rest of the world speaks English - or it should do - as we believe in our arrogant myopic mindset.

We listen to 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg's perfect English with an expectation that her annunciation and vocabulary would be nothing other than spot-on.

Our expectation of a 16-year-old from North Walsham to speak another language at any level would, however, be zero.

Our arrogance that communicating with us is someone else's responsibility is most likely rooted in fear.

Languages terrify us, are not always taught effectively and engagingly and are not emphasised as important life skills.

And if you can notch up an A at another subject more easily, why put yourself through the stress?

In the week that public exams started, even fewer students are sitting language exams this year because, according to more than 150 language specialist academics from 36 universities, who have signed a letter turning on the exams regulator, exams are marked too harshly.

Students are swerving French, German, Spanish and Russian because they are graded too severely and the stress for pupils is "disproportionate."

We're told to do what scares you. Face our fears. But if exam markers are going to make difficult even harder, why bother?

My recurring nightmare in times of stress is that my A-level French oral exam is tomorrow and I can't speak a word.

It's not too far from the truth. For some reason more associated with masochism than academic endeavour, I stuck out two years of A-level French - to the detriment of my university applications and grades - despite having, according to my teacher, a sharp, no-nonsense French woman, "absolutely no linguistic ability whatsoever."

I proved her right with a grade D (does anyone ever achieve a D at A-level these days?) by being "zee only student I 'av ever known to pass A-level French by learning everything by rote".

I'm proud that I never gave up or refused to be defeated, but that bloody-mindedness cost me decent A-level scores.

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Now languages are seen as elite subjects - reserved for the independent schools where parents fly them off abroad to speak the languages, or for the very bright.

A third of schools in England allow pupils to opt out of languages in year nine, according to figures from the British Council's annual language trends survey.

We might be so arrogant to believe that everyone speaks English across the world, and can understand us if we speak loudly and slowly enough.

In fact, only 20pc of the earth's population does, and most of those people aren't native English speakers.

Learning languages is literally dying out, so university academics are firing on OfQual as young people bravely sit exams this summer.

"They will have to sit excessively difficult exams and accept that their grade may well end up lower than their performance deserves," the letter says. "Where's the incentive to choose a language if you're systematically made to feel rubbish at it?"

In schools in England in the past 15 years, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 48pc, with German down 65pc and French down 62pc.

A-levels have dropped by more than one-third in French and 45pc in German since 2010. The number going on to study languages at university in the UK has also fallen 12pc since 2013.

The difficulty of languages compared with other subjects is one of the reasons, and what many experts believe is harsh marking, sometimes marked half a grade more severely.

My younger son is finishing his second year studying Spanish and Russian at Exeter University.

Little gives me greater pleasure than hearing him speak both languages. I phone him just to get him to speak Russian to me. He hates it; I think it's miraculous.

He can fill his mother with wonder at a couple of sentences.

In Spanish, he sounds like a native. In Russian, he is bewitching. I can't wait until September when he starts his year abroad living in St Petersburg and visit to witness him speaking to Russians.

He has none of the crippling embarrassment or self-consciousness that most of us suffered in our language lessons at school. My palms are clammy at the memory.

So, in honour of my son's wonderful language teachers who inspired him to push on with learning, I back the 152 academics' action, as should every parent.

Ofqual must take action in its consultation on French, German and Spanish GCSEs.

Learning languages enriches and broadens horizons and opens doors to new worlds. To have the education system against it, just increases the English arrogance to not bother.

Unless we work to reverse the downturn of languages, our children will turn into arrogant little Englanders.

Greta Thunberg is setting far more of a lead to our children than in her work on climate change.

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