Bonjour, England

Ministers have a radical new policy - to make languages optional at 14, but teach them to primary children instead. Will this make things worse?
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The Independent Online

How do you get children to study languages in a country that believes that everyone can understand English so long as it's shouted loudly enough, and where the number of pupils taking a language is shrinking faster than you can say Mon Dieu? The Government's answer has been to hatch a kind of linguistic "theory of everything", putting together the mis-matched halves of primary-pupil energy and secondary-student disaffection into a policy which aims to turn Britain's schoolchildren into a nation of enthusiastic - but voluntary - linguists.

How do you get children to study languages in a country that believes that everyone can understand English so long as it's shouted loudly enough, and where the number of pupils taking a language is shrinking faster than you can say Mon Dieu? The Government's answer has been to hatch a kind of linguistic "theory of everything", putting together the mis-matched halves of primary-pupil energy and secondary-student disaffection into a policy which aims to turn Britain's schoolchildren into a nation of enthusiastic - but voluntary - linguists.

Under the scheme, seven-year-olds are to be introduced to a second language in primary school, while 14-year-olds are to be allowed to drop it at secondary level. This will, so the theory goes, lead to a bit of a slump in the number of over-14s taking languages for a while. But after that, it will pick up fast again because the primary children who have been speaking Spanish or French or German for years will actively want to carry on. And, to help with the continuity - and to get away from traditional exams - levels of competence will be graded like music exams. But can this strategy actually bring about fundamental changes in such a stubbornly resistant area?

The policy has got underway smoothly enough. But many people question whether it will turn the British public on to languages. Graham Lane, leader of the 150 local education authorities in England, fears that without "real political will" behind it, it is never going to be effective. "You need something on the scale of the drive on numeracy and literacy. If Tony Blair and the Cabinet decided, like the French have done for their schools, that everyone is going to speak another language fluently by 18, it could be done."

Lid King, head of the strategy, says that things cannot be rushed, even if the Government has promised that every primary-age pupil will have a language "opportunity" by 2010. "There is no point getting lots of overseas assistants in if schools are not yet ready for them," he says. "Our biggest challenge is going to be to build capacity in a reasonable enough period of time to shift the paradigm."

Thomas Matussek, the German ambassador, whose predecessor criticised the lack of emphasis on languages in British schools, concedes we are moving in the right direction by introducing children to foreign languages earlier. "I am someone who prefers to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty," he says. "But to allow children to opt out of languages at 14, at such a critical time of their school life, does not seem so good. People argue that everyone speaks English, but companies always prefer people who can speak their language. There is the old saying that you might be able to buy from someone if you don't speak their language, but it will be impossible for you to sell them anything." British companies agree that contracts are lost because of our inability to speak other languages, but know they'll have a long wait before they can reap benefits from the new strategy.

However, there appears to be widespread support for introducing languages to primary schools. "People are finding lots of ways of making this an integral part of the curriculum, not seeing it as a bolt-on," says King.

Large numbers of linguists have come forward wanting to train as specialist primary teachers. More than 600 will be training, in five languages, from next September. Hugh Baldry, the head of government initiatives at the Teacher Training Agency, says the quality of applicants has exceeded expectations. The recruitment of foreign-language assistants, a key part of the strategy, is also going well.

And the results of teaching young children a language can already be seen in pilot areas such as Liverpool, where every primary school now offers a modern language, and primary teachers learn how to take language lessons by working alongside specialists. The policy started five years ago and gives children between an hour-and-a-quarter and an hour-and-a-half of Spanish, French or German a day. Children are not only picking up another language; heads are reporting changes in chil- dren's motivation, attitudes to learning, test results and confidence, says Liz Kelly, Liverpool City Council's senior effectiveness officer for languages.

But worries remain over what happens when language teaching becomes more widespread. Will the £10m-a-year (by 2005/6) strategy be able to deliver enough trained people and sufficient extra resources to give every primary child a worthwhile language base? Or will a lot of primary language teaching turn out to be little more than singing " Frère Jacques" and counting from un to dix? And, even more crucially, what will happen to enthusiastic primary-school language-learners when they go on to secondary school?

Languages present an enormous challenge for secondary schools - and it's one that many haven't been able to wait to offload. Polled in 2002, a third said they would let students drop them, and the evidence is that those who have already jumped to do so are mainly in disadvantaged areas. A survey by the Association for Language Learning and the National Centre for Languages last year showed that 70 per cent of the schools with more than 10 per cent of pupils on free school meals had made languages optional, as opposed to just a third of the rest. Secondary schools point out that league-table pressures encourage them to steer pupils towards easier options, and that they face problems recruiting language teachers. And the future is bleak. Many fear what will happen when they will be expected to take in pupils from multiple primary schools, all speaking different languages, at differing levels of competence.

Simon Richards, deputy head of Gosforth High School, in Newcastle upon Tyne, one of the country's first specialist language colleges, points out that even schools like his struggle to generate enthusiasm. "Parents send their children to us not because we're a language college but because we're a good school, and they'd often rather their children did another subject than a language. The good news for us is that, with so many schools now dropping languages, we can recruit top-quality staff."

Stephen Day, who is the assistant headteacher and language college director at Ryde High School on the Isle of Wight, says the experience of his school shows that secondary schools must combine lively lessons with trips and visits to keep up students' interest. That said, he adds that he hopes the advent of the "national languages ladder" might contribute to a more user-friendly and flexible way of certificating success in languages.

There certainly needs to be something. Last summer, the number of A-level students taking German plunged by nine per cent, and the number taking French went down by three per cent. Fewer and fewer students want to take modern-languages degrees. "But we are not sitting on our hands waiting to see how many candidates turn up," says Roger Woods, professor of German at Nottingham University, and chairman of the University Council of Modern Languages. "Universities are stepping up their open-day schemes for languages and inviting local sixth-formers for language-learning days." Other schemes match university students with school pupils to motivate young linguists. And, Woods points out, although the numbers studying pure languages at university are down, the numbers of students taking a language combined with another subject, such as business or engineering, are going up.

King says the problems at secondary level are well known, and work is being done on ways to keep pupils interested, although he agrees the threatened class gulf because of uneven provision is worrying.

However, he believes that globalisation is already transforming British attitudes to languages, and that many people return to them in later life, with almost a third of all adults showing an interest in improving their skills. This is something the Open University found out for itself when enrolments to Spanish courses shot up in the wake of David Beckham announcing he was learning the language.


At St Austin's Catholic Primary School in Liverpool, everyone is learning Spanish - children, teachers, parents, the head. It started this September, and within weeks children who hadn't known a word of the language were holding rapid-fire conversations.

"You can hear them greet each other in Spanish in the corridors. They'll say ' Si Senora!' when answering a teacher," says the head, John Carney. "They really love it."

"You have to see it to believe it," says Chris Greene, an advisory teacher for Spanish who works in the school four days a week. "I've taught in schools where languages are not what children either want or enjoy, but here they say 'Yes, it's Spanish!' "

The school has become a Spanish centre of excellence under the city's much-praised scheme to bring modern foreign languages to all primary children. These days, daily routines like taking the register are done in Spanish.

"Staff were keen, but concerned about how to fit it in. But if the will is there, you make it," says Carney.

The school has the support of Greene and of a languages assistant, although the level of specialist help will decline as teachers at the school find their feet in Spanish. Children get four lessons a week - games, songs, rhymes, talking - from a language speaker, with the class teacher working alongside. Then class teachers give extra teaching on top, for reinforcement.

To develop their own Spanish, teachers have an evening lesson in school, and some also go to other classes. About 40 parents attend a weekly Spanish class, too. They have even visited Madrid and built links with schools there.

"It has had a massive effect on the school. It engages every child. Their self-esteem has gone up and it's been brilliant for their speaking and listening skills," says Carney. "And it's about much more than the language. It's about appreciating another culture as well." However, he acknowledges that it will be a challenge for secondary schools to cope with children's "incredible skills" if they keep up the learning at their present rate.