German ambassador criticises UK over failings at languages

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The outgoing German ambassador delivered a fiery parting shot on the state of language teaching in UK schools yesterday, saying "English is not enough" for tomorrow's youngsters.

Thomas Matussek, who leaves the UK shortly for a post in India, warned that the number of students learning languages was "unfortunately still falling".

He urged the Government and local education authorities to ensure languages had "a firm place in school life", for the sake of trade and cultural exchanges. Figures show the number of GCSE candidates studying languages slumped by more than 64,000 this year - the first year since ministers made the subject voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds.

Mr Matussek said: "The greatest task probably lies in raising the awareness of the British public. In the home country of English, the world language, the task of persuasion is especially difficult. I firmly believe this is also a matter of social justice because languages facilitate social mobility."

Mr Matussek delivered his farewell message at a conference organised by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching in Bedford yesterday.

He said he had detected a growing awareness of the "vital importance" of languages among ministers and the media in the UK. This had led to efforts to boost the take-up of the subject in primary schools - ministers have insisted that within a decade, every child should be able to learn a language by the age of seven.

However, this year's GCSE and A-level results showed an alarming slump in the number of students learning languages. At GCSE the figure plummeted more than 64,000 with French down 14.4 per cent to 272,140 and German 13.7 per cent to 105,288. At A-level, German was down 7.7 per cent to 6,390 and French 4.4 per cent to 15,149. In the past 11 years, the number of students in A-level French has almost halved.

Mr Matussek told the conference: "Britain faces the great task of changing this trend. Languages are not just an ornamental necessity but vital to the real interests of this country."

Businesses have warned that the lack of language schools costs them around £100million of trade a year.

A report published by CILT yesterday also warned that while 75 per cent of French and German multinationals saw language skills as essential for recruits, fewer than 30 per cent of UK companies did. The conference also heard that 20,000 students a year from France and Spain participated in exchange trips, but only 7,000 from Britain.

Mr Matussek described the Government's plans to boost the take-up of languages in primary schools as a good basis for change, even if "many uncertainties remain in terms of concrete implementation".

"Learning a foreign language at the earliest possible age opens up a whole new dimension for children," he added. "It greatly benefits their reading and writing in their own language and there's evidence that, like musical education, it contributes significantly to the development of individual intelligence; and it concretely improves overall results at school." He urged both parents and universities to promote the importance of the discipline. "If language skills are to improve here in Britain, everyone needs to play their part."