Would I have flunked school if I lived in a foreign country?

I’ve heard that there are several countries where learning a second language is mandatory. Back when I was in school I took French and Latin. I was terrible at both. So what would happen if I was enrolled in another country’s schools and this situation came up?

I moved from one part of Canada where French wasn’t taught until high school to one where you were expected to learn it in elementary school. This was when I was in middle school. I know a dozen words of French and wasn’t any better back then. They just kept giving me the minimum of 51% until I didn’t have to take it anymore.


In some countries, mainly ones which were former European colonies, learning a second language is not only mandatory, but most of your education is also conducted in that second language. For example, up until the Chinese take over of Hong Kong, almost all subjects were taught in English after the 6th grade in most schools, even though many students (and some teachers too!) only have a questionable grasp of English. Even today, English is still the medium of instruction in all the good schools, as well as all the universities.

Obviously, people who are not good with languages do very badly under such system.

Are there really people who are “bad with languages?” (OTOH, since I do think there are people who are “good with languages,” I may have answered my own question.)

I am. I think the only reason I passed the minimum requirements(Spanish) was the teacher felt sorry for me having so little result with so much effort.

One of my older sisters speaks seven languages fluently and gets by in four others.

If we’re talking about language learning in a typical school environment with only very limited real world exposure, this is basically just another academic subject, and I don’t see why some people wouldn’t have a harder times than others, since we all have different talents.

If we’re talking about young kids in an immersion environment, that’s a whole other matter…

I think part of this is due to constant exposure to other languages. If you live in Europe, there are many languages being spoken around you. Imagine if each region of the United States had it’s own unique language. I have no doubt that multiple languages would be pretty standard in that case. As it is, we have English speaking Canada to our North and Spanish speaking Mexico to our south. Many people do learn to speak Spanish, but it is very rare that we need to speak it to comfortably go about our day. We don’t even need to speak it to travel to Mexico.

Part of my schooling was in English schools in Montreal. French is taught as a second language there. You cannot graduate from high school if you don’t pass French at the appropriate level.

You have to USE a language to become proficient with it, as well. Obviously, growing up in a society where multiple languages are spoken and even mandatory would be advantageous.

However, if your high school was anything like mine, you only spoke Spanish, French, whatever for one hour a day in class (and class is more listening and written excises than anything), and a little bit to yourself to prepare/cram/study for the exams and quizzes.

I don’t know ANY of my friends in my Spanish class that actually spoke Spanish in general conversation. At all.

I think the fact of the matter is, most people who claim to have some innate difficulty learning a new language simply aren’t putting in the time and effort required to do so. Learning a language isn’t like memorizing equations of motion, or something.

South Korea’s govenrment requires all students to take English (which is why I have a job here) and one other foreign language. Failing a grade here doesn’t have the same consequences it would have had for me back in Dixie. If I failed a grade, I’d have to repeat the year. Here, all students get promoted to the next grade unless they’ve missed too many days of class. AFAIK, the Roman Catholic schools will hold a student back for academics; however, the public schools just ram 'em through the whole 12 years.

The consequences of getting a bad grade aren’t high on a middle schooler’s list of priorities. The sad thing is that once said middle schooler has petered away the year, there’s no fixing it and when it comes time to go to university or get a job, the past will rise up and haunt–more like condemn–him.

Somewhat similarly, I remember my school days in the Toronto system. It was many years ago and things may have changed; but back then, everybody got a certain number of years of French. I’m unsure exactly when one could opt out of taking French (I was good at it so I took ten years of French all told, including university), but I’d say that all of us had at least five or six years of French classes that were mandatory.

I was at high school in South Africa, and two languages were mandatory. You would take the first at a First level and the second at an either First or Second level. For me this meant English First and Afrikaans Second. At the time I hated learning a second language and just scraped through, which is what I suspect you would have done in similar circumstances.

The South African system also focuses on the written language. In order to graduate you must pass two 3 hour written papers in a second language, Afrikaans in my case, and 1 short oral presentation. So you will finish high school being able to read and write a second language at a basic level but your ability to speak the language will be limited.

I sit through day long meetings where everything is conducted in Afrikaans and I have no problem following along, but I will speak in English because my spoken Afrikaans is awful.

With regards to the Ontario system, circa about ten years ago, six years was mandatory. That is, from grade four through grade nine. However, after seven years of French I’m embarrassed to say although I can read it passingly well, speaking and listening to it I’m pretty lost. You don’t use it, you lose it proving very true in my case. I like to think that if I was thrown into an environment in which I was immersed, I’d pick it up faster than I otherwise would.

In Germany, like in most European countries, you definitely need to learn a second language. Since five or so years ago, English is taught beginning in elementary school (obviously with a slow and playful approach).
For the Abitur (university qualification), you need at least three years of a third language as well (mostly French or Spanish), though many people aren’t that good at it.

And English is definitely the second language of choice - along the French border they wanted to introduce French instead in elementary schools, but the parents were up in arms about it. The status of English as lingua franca is uncontested.

Definately true fro the Netherlands as well, but you probably shouldn’t overstate what ‘learning a language’ means. Some people graduate while hardly speaking the language they are supposed to have learned. Learning a language comes in different parts: actively (writing letters, listening, speaking), but also just cramming words, grammatical rules etc. If you suck at the parts that are actually usefull (the active part) you can always get your grade back to a passing level by just studying on the memmorizing bits.

Don’t get me wrong, if you want to and have some aptitude for it you can learn to be pretty fluent in a language; it is just not neccesary.

Yes sure, you can’t expect much from the Hauptschule graduates. But even they have 9 years of English in most cases (including the 4 years elementary school), and I’d say most people who graduate Realschule or Gymnasium are at least reasonably fluent.

In France it’s mandatory to learn a second language, and usually a third, but even if you would end up getting zeros at each test, you wouldn’t flunk school for that, it would just lower the yearly average grade of all your classes, and as long as you have above ten, you’ll automatically go to the next year.

I sure didn’t have good grades in english, or in spanish, or latin, for most of my school years.

I don’t believe learning a second language is mandatory in the English school system (I’m deliberately not including Scotland here) although it is heavily encouraged and will be a requirement at some schools. It was at mine for example where we had no choice but to take French to GCSE level and any other languages had to be in addition to that.

However, the English GCSE system is modular. There’s no concept of having to reach a certain standard in the subjects you’re taking for GCSE in order to ‘graduate’ (which is something we do only on completing a bachelors degree). If you fail your French GCSE you’ve failed your French GCSE, but that’s it - you still get independent grades in the other 9 or so subjects you’ve taken. Some emphasis is placed on attaining pass grades in English Language and Maths, however, and students will often retake these exams in subsequent years (likely at a further education college rather than remaining in school) in order to achieve passes.


To add and expand to that, since the American system is different: Germany (as many othern European countries) has a non-elective curriculum through most of high school. (It used to be a selective course schedule for the last two years of Gymnasium = Advanced High School, in preparation for the university, and with similarities to a college, but that has been changed with the new G8 system, when the years of school were shortened.)

Here, for example, is a typical German school timetable. Transcribing and translating the picture:
Monday: German, English, Sport (General Physical ed.), Sport, Religion (either catholic or protestant; for the rest, ethics), social lesson
Tuesday: French, Music, History, Math, Physics, Chemistry.
Wednesday: Biology, History, Math, English, Geography, German
Thursday: Religion, Physics, French, French, Geography, German
Friday: Math, Math, English, Chemistry, Music, Biology

Looks like about 9th or 10th grade of Gymnasium to me. All the major subjects - languages, Math, Physics, all that gets more than 2 hrs/week - will have 2 or 3 written big tests per half-year, and a couple of minor tests (last lesson repeat) for grading. The minor subjects like religion will have only minor tests and oral participation for grading.

Grading starts with 1 = A for excellent to 4 = D just barely passing. The next one is 5 = mangelhaft (E), lacking, and 6 = ungenügend (F), not suffient enough, aka fail.

If you have two 5 or one 6 in your year-end report, you fail your whole grade and must go back and repeat it.* You can only repeat a grade once, and can only repeat one grade in each level (low-level: classes 5 to 7, mid-level 8 to 10, high-level 11 to 13). If you fail again, you have to leave the school.
So yes, you can fail the grade, or the final exam, for a foreign language, as well as for religion and geography, or art and sports.

As for how languages are taught in German schools, and what is tested: the teachers are not automatically native speakers, but rather, people who have a teachers degree from university. They may have spent some time abroad, but the accent is rather unimportant. The general aim is for BBC English, BE, but also with aspects of AE culture. The children have to learn vocabulary at home, practise grammar (mostly fill-in-the blanks verb forms, or choosing adjective/adverb), translate from one language into the other, read and translate pieces of text (the most interesting part, for me personally, because the texts were interesting), answer questions on the text (written and orally) and do discussions with other pupils and the teachers.

The tests are similar, but without the speaking part: in the lower classes, dictation, grammar exercises and translation, in the upper classes, essay questions, translation and writing your own essay.
Personally, I think too much focus is on passive vocabulary = understanding English, and not enough on active speaking or active translation into English. But that may be part of the problems of a big class.

Many pupils who struggle with the language get extra classes (Nachhilfe) from a tutor at home. Some go on student exchanges on their holidays.

It’s not that people living in one European country hear many languages spoken around them while growing up. The most common foreign ones in Germany would be Turkish from the immigrants ** and Italian on the holidays (though today, people are traveling to the Dominikan republic or Thailand in a plane all-inclusive, instead of Italy in a car as in the 70s/80s)

Still, it’s - to be honest, and as somebody who has struggled with languages because of a poor memory - not that languages are impossible to learn. Sports, Art and music are much more skill-oriented in that regard ***. With languages, sure, a crappy teacher will make it difficult (as in every other subject, like Math or physics). But if you knuckle down at home and learn the vocabulary backwards and forwards, you have got at least half of the problems away. Even if your parents are too poor for a tutor or exchange, you can lend books in the other language from the library. And this is the internet age - if you can’t go to England, England will come to you! So really, if you fail a language, it’s laziness.

  • Psychologists recently had a big debate with teachers and politicans about that about reforming the school system (again, as so often, since it urgently needs a reform) and advocated in favour of getting rid of this whole “repeating a grade” idea. They say their studies show that kids who failed and repeated a grade mostly do only marginally better, and never seem to recover from the shock, and most certainly don’t pick up better learning habits; while reform schools that don’t fail children have better results.
    Teachers claim that failing kids is the only way to get some kids to wake up and that they need a drastic measure as last resort.

** They finally hit upon the idea, instead of lamenting that all the children of Turkish immigrants / guest workers speak poor German and too much Turkish at home, to offer Turkish as foreign language at school: this way, they can get an offical report card that they speak Turkish well, which will be useful in bilateral economic companies and business ventures.

*** You won’t fail sports, arts or music just because you have no talent at all, however - if you lack any skill, but show honest effort, any reasonable teacher will give you a 4 (D). You have to be rude to the teacher or show unwilling to work to get a 5 or 6, because the teachers themselves seem to feel embarrassed about it, too.