French exams kick out les cliches

By Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

  • Published
french clichesImage source, Thinkstock

An exam board wants GCSEs in modern languages to escape outdated vocabulary and implausible conversations about holidays, the weather and zoo visits.

The youth-friendly OCR French, German and Spanish exams would introduce topics such as tattoos and festivals.

It would mean getting rid of vocabulary such as tank tops and pencil cases.

"Students are not really going to meet somebody in a cafe in Paris and describe their entire family," a teacher told the OCR exam board.

The exam board's draft plan for new-look GCSEs for England, submitted to exam regulator Ofqual for approval, is intended to bring a more contemporary quality to modern languages.

It wants to escape a feeling that language lessons are trapped in time by moving away from themes such as "Aurelie and Fabian go to town" or "Mathilde's school day".

'La plume de ma tante'

Instead of "Je mange un pamplemousse tous les matins" ("I have a grapefruit every morning"), the French exam will ask pupils to discuss "A mon avis un tatouage discret est une expression de ta personnalite", which means, "In my opinion a discreet tattoo is an expression of your personality."

It follows responses from teachers who thought language lessons should be more relevant to young people and use more convincing settings.

The proposals from OCR are the latest attempt to stop language teaching from using fossilised phrases.

Image caption,
Will language lessons prepare people for practical uses?

In the 1950s, French lessons were mocked for the repeated use of "La plume de ma tante" - the quill of my aunt - which became synonymous with pointless phrases learned by language students. It was adopted as the title of a Broadway musical.

The classic parody school books about schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, written in the 1950s by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, revelled in the boy's contempt for French lessons about "Armand and Papa" going to the zoo.

He describes the visit to the wolves - "les loups" - as a wasted opportunity.

"The loups could indubitably do a good job on Armand," wrote the fictional Molesworth.

In France, there was a corresponding stock phrase - "My tailor is rich" - which became the first English phrase taught to many French learners using a popular textbook dating back to the 1920s.

The plans for a more modern style of teaching, which would be implemented for teaching from September 2016, are also intended to tackle a major problem of recruiting young people to take modern languages.

There has been a long-term decline in the numbers of students taking modern languages at GCSE, A-level and at degree level.

There have been repeated complaints from employers and business that the lack of language skills is damaging the UK's economy.

"While language teachers are pulling their hair out as their student numbers decline with languages not prioritised by the current system, captains of industry are also deeply frustrated," said Katherine Smith, who is heading the exam board's modern languages changes.