Leading article: We should learn Urdu not French

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The Independent Online

This, the centre argues, could offer a springboard for rekindling interest in language learning, in the wake of plummeting numbers taking French and German at GCSE and A-level following the Government's decision to make languages voluntary from the age of 14.

Instead of seeing it as a problem that so many students in the UK have English as a second or alternative language, we should be celebrating the fact that we have such a diverse language culture in our schools. Indeed, we should try to encourage some of our monolingual English students to join in the learning of a community language.

Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, should approve of that. Four of the languages that are gaining in popularity are Chinese, Russian, Urdu and Portuguese. Just before the A-level results were announced, Sir Digby argued that more pupils should take up Chinese or Russian because these countries are where the markets of the future will be based. A survey at the weekend added India and Brazil to the nations likely to be dominating the world as we approach the middle of the 21st century.

The good news is that we should have enough speakers of these tongues to enable them to pass on their knowledge to others. It may be that after-school clubs will have to be set up so that the speakers of, for example, Portuguese and Gujerati can come into the schools to help the teachers. Such a drive would also be given impetus by the Government's move to treat language qualifications like those for musical instruments, whereby pupils can be awarded grades at any age when they have mastered the knowledge and skills.

The future for languages in the United Kingdom need not be bleak if we abandon the notion that we have to stick rigidly to French and German as the two main languages pupils should be learning. Welcome to a brave new world in which pupils learn Urdu, Bengali, Gujerati, Panjabi, Mandarin and Portuguese.