Ethnic melting pot boosts language lessons

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The Independent Online

A celebration of community languages in schools is one way of ridding Britain of its reputation as the world's language "dunce" and promoting better relations between different ethnic groups, education experts believe.

They say gloom over the slump in take-up of traditional foreign languages in secondary schools is masking a success story over the learning of ethnic minority languages. At least 15 foreign languages have shown an increase in take-up at A-level during the past four years, all spoken by ethnic minority groups in the UK.

In addition, after-school clubs in state schools teach a total of 61 ethnic minority languages to their pupils.

The rise in A-level take-up covers languages such as Chinese and Russian - study of which is considered important for the future health of the economy - as well as a Asian languages including Urdu and Gujarati.

Just before this year's A-level results were announced, Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said it was essential for Britain's world business links for more pupils to start studying these languages so tomorrow's business leaders could pull off deals in these countries.

Research for the Centre for Information on Language Teaching (Cilt), published yesterday, shows a revolution in the take-up of non-traditional languages in secondary schools. The number of students taking A-level in Chinese has increased from 1,375 to 2,062 since 2001, Russian from 469 to 636 and Urdu from 485 to 739.

Experts say promoting ethnic minority languages could also persuade native English speakers to take an interest in them.

Cilt's research, by the University of Stirling, found the linguistic map of Britain was changing, with multi-lingualism spreading from typically multi-ethnic areas to more "traditional" parts. In Wrexham, for instance, a total of 25 home languages are now spoken, including Portuguese, Polish, Tagalog and Shona.

One school which has won praise for its attitude towards minority languages is White Hart Lane in Haringey, north London, the school attended by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who warned last night in a heavily trailed speech that Britain was "sleepwalking into US-style segregation". The school has had had to deal with pupils speaking a range of 65 home languages, and has insisted all its teachers learn at least one community language spoken by its pupils.

Isobella Moore, director of Cilt, said: "This summer business leaders drew attention to our country's need for capability in a wider range of languages. Yet 9 per cent of our secondary school children and more than 10 per cent of primary children already speak another language at home and many more have one in their family background. By encouraging students to develop their existing knowledge we will be building up an important skills base as well as raising educational achievement."

Some educationalists say there is no point in teaching pupils something they are already good at. But the report argues: "It is never suggested that English-speaking students do not need to study the language formally at school because they are 'naturally' competent. It is important to recognise that it takes many years of study for monolingual English-speaking students to acquire high levels of literacy in English and the same is true forcommunity languages.

"Students may gain varying levels of oral fluency at home or in their communities but learning to read and write the language requires a different sort of attention, particularly when it requires a different script."

Joanna McPake, of Stirling University, the leader of the study, said: "There is a huge body of research testifying to the benefits that bilingualism has for educational development."

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