Should second foreign language be voluntary for Czech primary school students?

As part of a number of educational reforms, the government has proposed making the learning of a second foreign language in Czech primary schools voluntary for students rather than compulsory as it is at present, sparking criticism, controversy and debate among academics, politicians, language teachers, and even ambassadors from EU countries. Almost 2500 people, including foreign language teachers and representatives of three different pedagogical faculties, have signed a petition in support of keeping the second foreign language requirement.

The government’s proposal for reform of the Czech education system was open for online comment by school associations and teachers until April 21, with around 500 people having their say. In an interview with Czech News Agency, Jan Jiterský, head of the Ministry of Education's expert panel, said that most of the comments centred around the ministry’s proposal of dropping the second foreign language requirement, which suggests that, among education workers at least, this is the most controversial of all the proposed reforms.

Czech primary school lasts for nine years, from age six to 15. Since 2013, the teaching of a second foreign language has been compulsory in the eighth and ninth grades, but this new reform would make the second foreign language optional. Schools would still be obliged to offer a second foreign language to students if there was enough interest, but students themselves would no longer be obliged to take the class.

Tomáš Klinka | Photo: Czech Television

Tomáš Klinka, head of the Department of French Language and Literature at the Faculty of Education at Charles University, summed up the views of the opponents of the reform:

“The Ministry of Education argues that making the subject optional will allow students who have an aptitude for foreign languages to continue to pursue them, while the less talented can opt for another subject instead. However, it is a completely erroneous idea that it is possible to determine language talents in pupils aged 10-12. The choice would thus take place more according to the wishes of the school management or the socio-economic level of the parents. This would only worsen the already very significant socio-economic divide among certain population groups in the Czech Republic. The problem of inequality is one of the main problems identified in Czech education."

Other arguments against the reform include the idea that it is a step backwards, both for Czechia and for European goals, and that even a superficial knowledge of another language enriches pupils culturally, broadens their horizons and helps prevent the emergence of xenophobic views. Some also point to the example of Slovakia, where they say the same move taken several years back proved to be a failure.

Parent of two Miroslav says he does not support the proposed reform.

“If the parents decide that their child doesn’t need a second language, fine, but you need to have an option to have the second language. It needs to be a choice. It can’t be in a way that the school just doesn’t offer it. And it should start sooner.”

Petr Gazdík | Photo: Office of Czech Government

Although the Ministry of Education’s proposal does not state that English has to be the first foreign language, in practice, this is nearly always the case, and many primary schools teach English as early as from the first grade. According to Czech Statistical Office data from 2017, almost 98 percent of all European students, including those from the Czech Republic, were learning English.

This is one of the reasons that the proposed reform has upset German Ambassador Andreas Künne along with his French, Spanish and Italian colleagues, who sent a letter to Education Minister Petr Gazdík asking him to abandon the idea. However, Mr. Gazdík is sticking to his guns, arguing that many students struggle even with their native Czech.

“The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) international tests make it clear that a significant proportion – 20 percent – of primary school pupils do not even know their mother tongue well enough. The current teaching style does not give those who are learning a second foreign language the opportunity to develop it sufficiently.”

And there is by no means a consensus, even among education professionals. Many support and even welcome the government’s proposed reform. Dana Ticháčková, German teacher and member of the professional organisation ‘Učitelská platforma‘, agrees with Mr. Gazdík.

“A lot of children can’t even cope with the addition of English – this generation is already struggling with Czech. They do not encounter standard Czech in everyday life, and thus they have a problem understanding it and how Czech grammar works. On top of that we then add English. They can’t keep up, and then on top of that we add German or another foreign language. I am not surprised that children then lose their motivation to learn foreign languages.”

This comes shortly after the news that in the last year, Czechs’ English skills have deteriorated the most out of all European countries, falling to 27th place globally from 19th place the year before, as the news site Pražský Patriot reported on Sunday. This means that Czechia’s English skills were beaten by many other central and eastern European countries, including Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Estonia.

Illustrative photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

According to Radek Sárközi, President of the Pedagogical Chamber, it would help in the future if the bar for the high school English ‘maturita’ exam was set higher, and if CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) methodology was more widely used in schools, where students learn other subjects through the target language. However, this seems a very far cry from the government’s proposed reforms.

As is often the case with debates about education, the disagreements arguably stem from the often wide gulf between the utopian goals of what education policy hopes to achieve, and the sometimes very different reality in the classroom.