English, a new social arbiter

The English language level among students varies greatly depending on their financial situation and lockdowns have only served to exacerbate the differences

Knowledge of English is becoming a new social arbiter, as the gap between rich and poor students has widened during the pandemic. While some students have the option of extracurricular support, others cannot afford to supplement the classes they get at school.

Results from the basic skills tests in the subject taken by primary and secondary school (ESO) pupils last May following the lockdown show a downward trend, with the average English language score the lowest of all the subjects tested. In primary school, the average grade was 73.2, a level similar to that of 2013, when it was 73.0, and down from 2019, when it was 78.2. It’s a similar situation in ESO, where the average mark in May was 70.5, below the 71.0 score in 2016, and well below the 74.5 of 2020.

At first glance, the decline may not seem dramatic, but the scores do not tell the whole story. The head of projects at the Bofill Foundation, Miquel Àngel Alegre, says: “There are many inequalities between students and between schools, and this moderate average score masks a situation in which there are students with extremely good results and others with very low results. These inequalities are not so great in other subjects.”

Catalonia’s 2021 plan to reduce school failure set a target of 15% for the percentage of students at the lowest level of competence. In primary school, this goal was achieved in Catalan (12.3%), natural sciences (11.5%) and, just about, in maths (14.9%). Yet in English the percentage stood at 18.7%, more than three points higher than the target.

“The reason is the socio-economic and cultural situation of families and schools as a whole. Everything not learnt in school has to be learnt outside school. This is not so big a problem in Catalan or Spanish due to everyday activity and family life, but in English this doesn’t happen, and learning outside school depends on whether you have access to additional support,” says Alegre.

Evaluation reports point out that the English language also requires continuous support from teachers, which for many reasons is more difficult to do digitally. Also, not all students have access to extracurricular activities in English, and these factors help explain the differences in results. The Bofill Foundation calls for a new approach to the subject: “It must be more oral, more communicative, not so grammatical, and must span other subjects,” says Alegre.

feature english

Xavier Quinquillà

“Our aim is to make it easier to reach the B2 level”

An interuniversity working group is putting the finishing touches to the “third language skills improvement plan for the university system”, which will establish guidelines to ensure students have access to resources and tools to increase their level of knowledge of a third language and gain B2 level accreditation by the end of their degree studies.

What is the plan?
The plan’s main aim is to make it easier to reach the B2 level. It’s due to be presented in March and involves work from all the universities, the Department of Universities and Research, and the Department of Education. The universities are committed to an issue they consider a priority, but it needs to be done from the ground up. That’s what we’re working on.
What will the approach be?
There are a few main areas, the first of which is the diagnosis phase: we need to know where we are. What is the level in third languages of the students who are integrated into the system? From here the process needs to be as personalised as possible. There are a lot of students who already have the B2 level but there are also many students who start with a B1 level or lower. But getting a student to the B2 level is a possible, albeit complex, task. And that’s why we need a different approach to what’s been done before.
What role do tools and resources play in improving language skills?
The second leg of this new plan will be about significantly increasing resources. We’re tripling the budget for English courses to help all students, but especially the most vulnerable, those who’ve had the most difficulty in learning English because they haven’t had access to any kind of extracurricular support. There’s been an issue of inequity, of difference of opportunity, and this significant increase in support is necessary to ensure students can reach the B2 level.
Is there support for other third languages other than English?
Yes. The plan also gives importance to third languages that aren’t English, as the world is increasingly multilingual. There are already many professional careers that need graduate profiles with skills in other languages that are not English. In social subjects, for example, languages such as Romanian, Arabic and Chinese.
What about teacher training?
Bringing about an improvement in the language skills of primary and secondary school teachers is a key element. We’re working with the education department to come up with a strategy for the initial training of secondary school teachers. This is particularly important because it’s clear that the problem of learning third languages, and more specifically English, has to be resolved at a pre-university stage.

Inequality also in the university

Pressure from universities led the government to announce in October 2021 that it was withdrawing its directive that the B2 level would be required to get a university degree. Since then, universities have been looking for other ways to certify that their students have an adequate level of English, French, German or Italian. They aim to adopt a common policy in relation to third languages for the 2022/2023 academic year. An interuniversity working group is now putting the final touches to a “plan to improve third language skills in the university system” and aims to present the plan in March.

Asian languages gaining students

The global presence of China and Japan have led to Asian languages gaining students around the world, says the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). If Spanish, French, German or Italian used to be the favourite foreign languages other than English to study, the world is now moving towards Asian languages.

Japanese is the fifth most popular language in the world to study, and the fastest growing second language in the US and the UK, says the UOC. Chinese has risen from tenth to eighth place and is one of the five fastest growing foreign languages among students in Mexico and Brazil.

The UOC has also seen a growth in demand for learning these languages in recent years. It says interest in Chinese “exploded” a few years ago, when it became clear that it is going to be one of the great world languages of the future, and it says interest in learning Japanese is now “in full swing”. In fact, last year the enrolment in Japanese courses in the UOC grew by 60% in the first semester and 50% in the second.

UOC Professor of Arts and Humanities, David Martínez-Robles, explains the interest in Chinese: “In the past 20 years, China’s global presence has grown enormously and the country is much more visible.” The case of Japanese is “different”, he adds, as “the interest in the language comes from the appeal of country’s cultural capital.”

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