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17 February 2008

Parler Pour Ne Rien Dire

When I saw the BBC News headline Language GCSEs 'Could Drop Orals', my inner linguist immediately clicked on the link to see what all the fuss was about. The first piece of text that caught my eye was, "oral tests was "predictable" and "stupid"." My first reaction was that the adjectives were referring to the tests themselves. Of course, the full sentence was actually:

Chris Woodhead said the idea of abolishing oral tests was "predictable" and "stupid".

I'm not so sure. Obviously, language teaching en Angleterre is in a bit of a mess (teachers just about have the time to inform their conscripts what the French for ASBO is so that they know for what they are being arrested when engaging in lager loutery overseas), but I think the QCA has a valid point when they note that one's performance in an oral exam isn't necessarily an indicator of one's ability to communicate in a foreign language.

The real issue, though, is that it doesn't really matter if they scrap oral exams at GCSE or not because they don't really test anything as it is. Yes, oral exams are quite stressful (I hate them, myself, and always clam up and tend to forget obvious words, like the French for film director or that the French for vegetable is not végétable) but the real problem is that the exams don't really test anything much and although it might be very well for me, the linguist, to say they are too easy, but plenty of girls at my school who were crap at French and could hardly ask for a beer, let alone hold a conversation still ended up with an A grade.

My oral exam, admittedly eight years ago now (jeez), consisted of the following:

1. Roleplay B [Roleplay A being for a lower exam tier; god knows what it contained]. This was the most ridiculous part. I was given a card with three questions I had to ask or things I had to tell my teacher (AKA the examiner). I was in a department store in France trying to buy a gift for my French exchange's family. I first had to select one of the three pictured items (plant, chocolates, picture) and ask the teacher (playing a shop assistant) where I could find it. I then had to ask where I could find the lift, the tills or (if I was feeling like a klepto) the exit. Then, I had to say what I liked doing in France (tennis/sailing/cinema); um, non-sequitur much? Surely the point of a roleplay is to have a conversation that you might actually have in the real world with a non-demented human being...

2. Roleplay C. I can't actually remember what was in this one as it all kind of blurs into AS-French. However, it was slightly more involved and less ridiculous than roleplay B, although probably didn't require me to say anything I hadn't been able to communicate as a seven-year-old let loose on the streets of Paris.

3. Discussions! The exam board produced a list of about 10 topics, ranging from family to future plans to food. We all had to prepare one topic to discuss with the examiner and she would then pick another at random for another brief discussion. I picked sport as my topic and never forgave myself for saying "au fin" to describe the end of a rowing race instead of using the feminine, although I did at least correct myself. My teacher thoughtfully picked food as my second topic, although as I was a vegetarian then, I did at least have something to chat about (to be fair, I suppose, the complicated set of rules and exceptions that govern my eating habits would probably have kept us busy for hours), which was when I let slip my végétables gaffe (which wouldn't have been so tragic if, three years earlier, on hol in Chamonix, my father hadn't accidentally made the same mistake; naturally, I had teased him about it ever since, so that was a nasty karma boomerang).

Nervous as I got, the exam was a walk in the park and I spent most of my revision time learning poncey phrases involving the subjunctive, the conditional and relative pronouns like dont and lequel. As I said, I'm not the best example in this case but I still don't think the oral exam was really very challenging or proves anything much at all about a candidate's oral ability, in its present form. What is most important in mastering the oral component of a language is regular exposure to the spoken language and, more importantly, regular practice. While I don't think scrapping the oral exams at GCSE will affect standards very much, if a consequence of this change was that teachers didn't bother at all with the teaching of spoken French (which seems likely in this learning-for-the-sake-of-the-curriculum climate), that would be much more dangerous. Language is, after all, about communication and a person with a good grade in GCSE French is more likely to find herself in a situation where oral skills are more important than being able to write in French.

I was lucky enough to have a really great, inspiring French teacher for the final five years of school and it was probably because of her that I really got into languages in the first place. She was an exception, though, and given that the GCSE and A-level modern languages curricula are so utterly boring, it's a miracle that anyone goes on to study languages at university. The problem surely lies not in the method of examination but the teaching...and the government has already made itself clear on its opinion of the value of languages.

Perhaps the title of this post would be more accurately named, Examiner pour ne rien examiner ("examining for the sake of examining").


  1. Anonymous10:33

    i think you mean 'donc' you arrogant idiot. i don't know how a teacher so inspiring as the one you named managed to put up with you for 5 years, you sound like a right 'peigne-cul'

  2. If, when you say "donc" you mean where I wrote "dont" ("relative pronouns like dont and lequel") then no, that isn't it. "Donc" is a conjunction meaning "so" while "dont" is a relative pronoun meaning "of which," un fait dont vous êtes évidemment conscient.