The French education minister got a new, brilliant idea to tackle the French’ abysmal level of English (and foreign languages in general): let’s start teaching children in kindergarten, from age 3. The rationale has been heard many times before: everyone knows that children are just like sponges, they learn extremely quickly and can just pick up foreign languages in a couple of days. In fact, it’s known that we should also just teach them advanced mathematics and quantum theory. Logically, the next minister should try to out-do the current minister, and propose //in utero// English introduction courses (which will give the “introduction” a whole new meaning.)

Clearly this does not pass the [[mockability test]]. Many things bother me in this theory: children are supposed to learn a language easily, yet French kids are taught French in school for 10 years, and after that many are still not very good (as in, can’t write a coherent cover letter that’s not littered with grammar and spelling mistakes.) In the past I met a German guy who grew up in Brazil for a few years. He did in fact learn a lot of Portuguese. He left Brazil by the age of 6 or so, and when I met him in Germany as he was 35 he could not speak or understand a word of Portuguese. A lot of things that children are taught at a very early age are just forgotten if the teaching is not continuous.

And then there is the assumption that adults just can’t learn new languages. I think that’s a convenient position adults like to corner themselves in: they suck at languages, but what can they do about it, it’s the fault of their teaching system that didn’t start on them early enough, and now they’re 30 and it’s too late and they’ll just suck at languages forever no matter how hard they try, so why bother. Well, that’s just all bullshit: I know from personal experience that I started English in school at the age of 14, I absolutely sucked at school until I was about 20, discovered the Internet and started using English as a communication tool and became bilingual within a few years, to the point that native English speakers often can’t tell I’m not in fact a native. I went on to become fluent in German as well, a language at which I sucked even more than English at school.

I think the biggest problem with the French language teaching system is a problem of goal (and this may apply to some other language teaching systems, but I can’t vouch for them). English teachers tend to see themselves, I guess, as English literature teachers. As long as they don’t start regarding themselves as //communication// teachers, their efforts are doomed. There is no point reading Marting Luther King when you can’t order food at a restaurant. There is no point knowing how to describe a picture when you can’t ask for directions to the nearest hospital. There is no point teaching English as a abstract subject without showing to kids that it can serve them to connect to the world, which is something that the Internet actually makes possible today (I do pity language teachers from the time of my youth, when the only easily available resources were Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.)

In a similar vein are the language teachers with an agenda. My wife teaches English in Engineering schools in France. She was once asked to teach an entire curriculum about the place of women in society and in the industry in particular. Way to go to bore 20 year-old engineering boys who would like nothing more than to have more girls in their classrooms, but have no idea why that’s not the case. Meanwhile her fun class on creative use of technology was poo-pooed as pandering to the kids (I guess). Here’s a teacher with the wrong agenda: her classroom is not the place to teach kids about feminism, it’s supposed to be the place to teach them English, and the topics chosen should only matter insofar that they motivate the kids. Show them that understanding English enables them to understand Youtube videos about robots, and they’ll actually go and seek them by themselves. Show them that English girls like Byron, and they may even get an interest in poetry.

On top of that problem of creating motivation (the carrot), there was a problem of lack of coercion (the stick). I remember being clearly told that in high school, it didn’t really matter if I sucked at history, or biology, or languages, because I’d never have to do the year again as long as I was good enough at French and maths. Right, so I’m a 14 year old French boy, I see no point in learning any English because let’s be honest, who the heck would want to live in Britain, and I won’t get punished if I suck at English? Give me a break, I’d rather play video games. Uh-oh, that //D&D Pool of Radiance// is entirely in English. And that’s how by the time I reached the end of high school, I could have taught English teachers about medieval weapons (in English, obviously). Still couldn’t ask for direction to the nearest inn, though. That’s the strength of motivation. This particular point might be slowly changing, with a raising number of Engineering schools making it mandatory to have a Cambridge certificate or a minimum TOIC score to obtain the degree. However, while that certainly should be motivating for Engineering students, there needs to be something similar earlier on that applies to all children (presumably, if you consider everyone should speak a little bit of English, which the minister’s idea seems to entail.)

So there, another silly idea from a minister that probably doesn’t know much about teaching, nor about languages. Luckily, there will be no funding for this idea and it’ll stay where it is. Actually, want to bet that when they start finding it difficult and expensive to implement, they’ll suddenly come across a study that explains that teaching kids languages at an early age achieves nothing?