Of the ‘curse’ of tense-driven progression in MFL learning

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For too many years the UK National Curriculum posited the ‘mastery’ of tenses as the main criteria for progression along the MFL proficiency continuum. A learner would be on Level 4 if s/he mastered one tense + opinions, on Level 5 if s/he mastered two, etc. This preposterous approach to the benchmarking of language proficiency has always baffled me and has caused enormous damage to MFL education in the UK for nearly two decades. Not surprisingly I felt relieved when the current British government ‘scrapped’ the National Curriculum Levels. Sadly, this approach to progression is so embedded in much UK teaching curriculum design and practice that it will be very difficult to uproot, especially considering that some Examination boards still place too much emphasis on tenses in their assessment of GCSE examination performance.

But why am I so anti- tense-driven progression? There are two main reasons. First and foremost, the expressive power of a speaker/writer in any language is not a function of how many tenses s/he masters; it is more a function of – in no particular priority order:

  1. How much vocabulary (especially verbs, nouns and adjectives) s/he has acquired;
  2. How flexibly s/he can apply that vocabulary across context;
  3. How intelligible his/her output is;
  4. How effectively s/he can use time- markers (which will clearly signpost the time dimension we are referring to in communication);
  5. How effectively s/he masters the various functions of discourse (agreeing, disagreeing, evaluating, etc.) which will hinge on his/her knowledge of discourse markers (however, moreover, etc.) and subordination;
  6. How effectively s/he masters L2 syntax; etc.

In fact, in several world languages tenses do not really exist. In Bahasa Malaysia, for instance, one of the official languages of the beautiful country I live in, tenses – strictly speaking – do not exist. The past, the present and the future are denoted by time adverbials, e.g. one would say ‘Yesterday I leave my wallet in the hotel room’. Sentences like this one, would convey more meaning than the more accurate ‘I left my wallet in the hotel room’, since it is perfectly intelligible and more useful if one needs to tell the owner of the hotel one stayed in last week, when the wallet was left behind. Yet, according to the former National Curriculum Levels the second sentence would be a marker of higher proficiency…

Placing so much emphasis on the uptake of tenses skews the learning process by channeling teachers and students’ efforts away from other equally or even more important morphemes and aspects of the languages, which somehow end up being neglected and receiving little emphasis in the classroom and textbooks. It also creates misleading beliefs in learners about what they should prioritize in their learning.

This is one of the main problems with tense-driven progression, but not the main one. The most problematic issue refers to the pressure that it puts on teachers and learners to acquire as many tenses as possible in the three KS3 years. This is what, in my view, has greatly damaged British MFL education in the last 20 years, since the UK National Curriculum Levels were implemented. Besides resulting in overemphasizing tense teaching, such pressure has two other very negative outcomes.

Firstly, many teachers end up neglecting the most important dimension of learning – Cognitive Control. This occurs due to the fact that not enough time is devoted to practising each target tense; hence MFL students often learn the rules governing the tenses but cannot use them flexibly, speedily and accurately under communicative and/or time pressure. The pressure to move up one notch, from a lower level to a higher level – often within the same lesson – reduces the opportunities for practice that students ‘badly’ require to consolidate the target material, unduly increasing cognitive overload.

Secondly, often students are explicitly encouraged or choose to memorize model sentences which they embed in their speech or writing pieces in order to achieve a higher grade, learning them ‘ad hoc’ for a scheduled assessment. This would be acceptable if it led to acquisition or if it were supported by a grasp of the tenses ; but this is not always the case.

In conclusion, I advocate that the benchmarking criteria that UK teachers adopt explicitly or implicitly, consciously or subconsciously to assess progression in MFL learning should be based on a more balanced approach to the measurement of proficiency; one which emphasizes discourse functions, range of vocabulary (especially mastery of verbs and adjectives) and pronunciation, much more than it currently – a year since the National Curriculum Levels were abolished –  still does. As I have often reiterated in my posts, teaching should concern itself above all with acquisition of cognitive control rather than with the learning of mere rule knowledge. Progression should be measured more in terms of speed and accuracy of execution under real-life-like communicative pressure, width of vocabulary, functions and structures mastered as well as syntactic complexity. Tenses are important, of course, but they should not take priority over discourse features which are more crucial to effective communication.