FOREIGNERS looking for a bus stop or a museum in Copenhagen or Stockholm do not usually hesitate to ask a local resident for help since they are almost certain to get a reply in fluent English. This, however, is not yet the case in Bratislava according to English teachers in Slovak schools who have welcomed the initiative of the Education Ministry to strengthen the English-language skills of current and future generations of Slovaks. But some teachers have also expressed doubts whether the legislation passed by the Slovak parliament, overriding a veto by President Ivan Gašparovič, that makes English instruction compulsory at primary schools will be enough to do the job.
Education Minister Eugen Jurzyca believes that giving preference to English, as the contemporary lingua franca, over other languages in the mandatory curricula of primary schools will bring fruit in that every secondary school graduate will be tasked with mastering English at the B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. With that aim in mind, the Education Ministry was able to push an amendment to Slovakia’s Schools Act through parliament.
English becomes compulsory
Slovakia is the 14th country in the European Union to make English language instruction compulsory, after the Slovak parliament overrode a presidential veto of the amendment in early February 2011 and gave the green light to new rules that will become effective on March 1. English will become compulsory starting from the third grade at all primary schools in the upcoming school year.
Currently, only about 66 percent of students in Slovakia learn English while in the EU overall the percentage is as high as 90 percent. Slovak students are required to study two foreign languages: one beginning in their third year and a second one beginning in the fifth grade. They will no longer be able to choose the first of them – English will be mandatory for all.
“A positive impact from this decision will not be seen immediately but in my opinion it was necessary to come to this conclusion,” Jana Berešová, the head of the Slovak Association of Teachers of English, told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the law in itself will not improve Slovak students’ English and that further steps need to be taken, such as replacing the old-fashioned accreditation based on theory and literature by practical lessons focused on skills.
Berešová compared Scandinavian countries with Slovakia in that they are also fairly small and their native languages will never be used by other Europeans as target languages.
“Their language policy supports English as a language of communication, so in Sweden children start learning English very early and during their secondary school studies they can learn another target language, but mostly languages they think will be needed for real purposes, such as Spanish because a large part of the world’s population uses Spanish as their mother tongue or as a language of communication,” Berešová explained.
After the amendment was first passed by Slovakia’s parliament, Education Minister Eugen Jurzyca was showered with strongly critical reactions from many quarters. President Ivan Gašparovič vetoed the law, stating that students should be able to pick a language of their choice as their first foreign language. Some ambassadors to Slovakia, according to President Gašparovič, also objected to their country’s language being pushed aside in Slovak schools and some schools worried that there might not be enough qualified English teachers.
Berešová explained that studying English at Slovak universities is not very attractive for young people as learning the language is not easy, the social status of teachers is low and the expected salary is discouraging. She suggested that one temporary solution for the lack of English-language teachers would be to give students at universities in any field of study an opportunity to continue in courses of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) for six to eight semesters.
“Most non-philological faculties stopped teaching ESP to save money,” Berešová told The Slovak Spectator. “No institution checked if this kind of saving is good or bad. It seems to be bad because many graduates are unemployed. If they had completed ESP courses, they could have tackled this lack of teachers for a certain time.”
The Education Ministry told The Slovak Spectator that at the end of November 2009 almost 13,000 teachers were teaching English at basic and secondary school levels and that some schools lacked English-language teachers. The ministry expects to fill any shortage in teachers by using teachers who are upgrading their qualifications so they will be permitted to teach English.
Almost 4,000 teachers are now attending university courses for training in teaching foreign languages. The programme for retraining teachers, which had been suspended for almost six months due to problems drawing money from European funds, was restarted in early 2011 when the education minister found resources in the state budget to fund it.
The British Council also proposed to the Education Ministry last September that it could offer a range of courses for teachers that might meet the ministry’s requirements. The British Council said it was willing to offer these resources to the Education Ministry for free and would also take the responsibility for training an initial group of trainers.
14. Feb 2011 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani