LanguageBonjour. Je m’appelle Stephen. J’habite à Belfast. J’aime jouer au ping-pong.

With the exception of the, umm, questionable phrases, “votre mère a de grands boobs,” “J’ai eu le sexe avec votre soeur,” and “votre mère suce des pénis” the above pretty much exhausts my grasp of French (a fact proven in a semi-drunken margarita fuelled conversation with a bunch of French rugby fans in a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh three years ago).

I never bothered much with languages after the age of 13, and was made to pay for my lack of attention in school on a trip to Paris a few years ago. Italians are great when you don’t know much of their language – it all becomes a funny game of Charades and they love the sport of it and it makes you feel a little bit less of an idiot. Not so with the French – they just despise you, even when you try. How do you say “fuck off you garlic loving arsehole” in French?

Alas, I wish I had learned another language, and I envy school kids who still have that chance. Or do they?

This week it emerged that the oral examinations that currently make up half the current GCSE qualification (for 15-16 year olds) in language studies might be dropped because they are deemed to be “too stressful.” It is looking likely that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will accept recommendations from a review of language teaching, which said short oral exams should be replaced by assessment by teachers over a longer period. The review said that the stress of having to go through an oral exam might be a major factor in turning students away from studying languages.

“Weird” is a word that comes to mind. Je ne comprends pas, the French might say. One commentator added “stupid,” because “if one is wanting to know if someone has mastered a foreign language in any context, then clearly the student has got to be able to speak that language in any context.” Seemingly it’s another sign that our government is continuing its goal of taking the stress out of schools completely. It’s been a trend for a long time now to protect school children from what they find stressful, too demanding, or just don’t like.

There has been condemnation all round culminating with this verbal kick in the balls from the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove: “instead of proper rigour we have got a watering down of standards.” He’s got a point. Already under the Labour government’s reforms students can pass their French GCSE without writing a word of French. The bulk of the exam is multiple choice questions where students simply tick a box or link phrases. In an oral examination the student is recorded and the tape sent away to examiners. Continual assessment by the student’s own teacher over a period of time lacks the objectivity that proper and rigorous examination requires. How, for instance, can we guarantee that all teachers are going to give the same level of assessment, and even more pressing how do we know that teachers won’t be a little bit softer on their own pupils (after all their pay is performance related and the better the pass rate the better they do out of it themselves)? The best form of assessment is at the end of the course when all has been covered, and for a language there simply must be an oral examination. Learning a language and not being able to speak it is useless. It’s almost like learning to play a guitar without ever strumming a note because the pressure to perform is just too much.

The retort to this widespread condemnation has typically involved recourse to the poor brilliant student who just has a bad day and crumbles under the pressure of an oral examination. But, rather than raise this issue, why can’t students be trained to handle stress and pressure? After all isn’t stress and pressure, and performing well under them, all part of life? When kids leave school they can’t rely on the world being that nice to them. When they screw up a job interview because they can’t handle stress and pressure they don’t get a second chance, and certainly no prospective employer is going to keep an eye on them over a longer period of time to see how they perform before offering them a job. You need to perform at any given moment and you often don’t get to choose when. In fact, arguably oral examinations aren’t stressful enough.

In an oral exam you are put on the spot and forced to speak a relatively unfamiliar language. Stress and handling it is an important lesson and experience. Stress itself causes our hearts to beat a little faster and motivates us to action: it sharpens our wits. In fact research from the US and Canada indicates that experiencing episodes of stress can be good for your health, especially short-term challenges. Athletes will experience stress before an event; as do managers giving a big presentation to potential customers, and students before an exam. Stressful situations call us to rise to the occasion, and generally most of us manage to do just that. Even if we fail we can pull ourselves up, and doing badly in a language oral examination is much less humiliating that telling a bunch of French rubgy fans “J’aime jouer au ping-pong” in the middle of a busy restaurant.

Given the weakening standards in language speaking across the country fewer students will leave school able to speak even semi-intelligently in another language. It’s wise to have something else to say to French rugby fans other than: “J’ai eu le sexe avec votre soeur,” believe me. Our world is increasingly competitive and global and those who can speak other languages have many more opportunities than those who can’t. In order to succeed in this world and take these extra opportunities students need to be able to do more than tick multiple choice boxes. If you want to learn a language you need to be able to speak it fluently, or as near as possible, in all conditions: stressful or not. Furthermore, it fools the students. University professors and employers are already complaining that students struggle to cope with even some basic functions and tasks, which causes disillusionment amongst students who think they’re prepared to cope but quickly face the reality that they can’t.

School kids will eventually walk out of school and into the adult world. It’s competitive, stressful and often unpleasant. Schools should not be denying them the chance to face such difficulties and learn how to overcome them. God help any child that doesn’t understand this. He or she may as well not know that 1+1=2. They will leave school wholly unprepared for facing the world that smacks them straight in the face the minute they saunter out the school gates for the last time.

There are much worse things than facing stress. Telling Frenchmen in their mother tongue that you think their mothers have massive boobs (because you’ve nothing else to say) is one of them.