There has been a lot of controversy over the new spelling and grammar test for year 6 children recently. I have to say that some of the sample questions do seem somewhat strange and I confess that I had not heard of the phrase “fronted adverbial” until this year. However, as a linguist, I do believe that children will find learning foreign languages in secondary school much easier with the greater knowledge of grammar terminology that the new test requires.
I have yet to meet an EU national who has arrived in Britain to teach French, German or Spanish who is not initially shocked at how our pupils seem to have so little knowledge of the grammar of English. The fact that a word such as “before” can be a preposition, an adverb or a conjunction in English (thank goodness no more of that horrible word “connective”), means that English native speakers who have not come across these terms will struggle when they find out that “before” is translated in three different ways in French and German, according to whether it is an adverb, preposition or conjunction. “Why are there all these irregular verbs – we don’t have this in English” is a comment which drives many non native speakers of English to despair, particularly since they themselves had to learn lists of English strong verbs by heart when they were at school and were then tested on them. The classification of tenses is another issue; English tenses are far too complex to be oversimplified as past, present and future. “What is this Perfect Tense?” , our pupils grumble and look on us foreign linguists with suspicion when we tell them that English has perfect tenses as well, almost as if we were somehow being unpatriotic to point out that English is not something unique and set apart from other languages. Being able to identify subordinate clauses in English has been dismissed as useless, but it is vital for translating English into a language like German, where word order changes in subordinate clauses.
“But the tests are for 11 year olds – they’re much too young” is the next objection. Well, I did some research and found that the French school curriculum requires a detailed knowledge of grammar terms at the age of 11, plus full understanding of tenses (perfect, imperfect, pluperfect etc.) which goes beyond the massively oversimplified “past, present and future” which our children are taught. Germany does not have a national curriculum, as education is in the hands of the individual German states, but I found a copy of the Bavarian curriculum which stated much the same thing. And all at the age of 11! I admit my research has not gone further than France and Germany, but my guess is that the same applies in other European countries.
“But it doesn’t help them write good English” is an objection I can sympathize with. I can think of nothing more dreary than a class of pupils sitting down with a “checklist” of grammar terms to include in their writing – it is likely to lead to sentences such as “I like it , because it’s good”. At this point any MFL teacher who has done a GCSE controlled assessment will be nodding in recognition. Yet if we are to improve foreign language learning in the UK, we need to start with getting our pupils familiar with the grammar of their own language (or indeed languages!) while they are in primary school. That is why, speaking as a linguist, I welcome the new test.