Leading article: Pupils need to learn a language

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The Independent Online

This week, the German ambassador, Thomas Matussek, issued a timely reminder on the state of language learning in the UK. In a cleverly crafted speech - his parting address to the UK before moving on to take up a post in India - he praised the Government's efforts to boost language learning, while at the same time pointing out that it was "unfortunate" that the take-up of languages was still falling.

What he did not say (and the language of diplomacy, no doubt, prevented him from doing so) was that - year by year - it is becoming more and more apparent that the Government's decision to drop compulsory language learning for 14-to 16- year-olds has been a complete disaster. This year, the numbers taking GCSEs declined by 64,000 and an even bigger slump is predicted next year, the first year that the impact of the decision will be tested on pupils who have taken the full two years of a GCSE course. Addressing a conference organised by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, the ambassador said he believed that Britain's biggest battle was in raising public awareness about the importance of languages. It does not help, of course, when the Government takes decisions that pander to the people's historic reluctance to learn another language.

The Government can take heart from the words of approval that the ambassador used to describe the drive to boost languages in primary schools. It is too early to say whether ministers will meet their target of giving every seven-year-old the chance to learn a language by the end of the decade. But there are encouraging signs of progress: 800 new primary teachers a year are taking a language option as part of their teacher training course. And secondary school teachers are taking advantage of developments in online learning to teach children in feeder primary schools. But even if the target is met, those seven year olds will not be joining the workforce until around 2020 at the earliest. That is an awfully long time to wait in a fast moving world for an upturn in language teaching. Think of the damage that will be caused in the meantime, with all those pupils deciding to give up languages. It is still not too late for ministers to acknowledge they made a mistake and reverse it.

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