Mike Ullmann: Let's put an Olympian effort into languages

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Next week Lord Dearing will publish his interim report on the state of languages in Britain. I sincerely hope that there will be an immediate recommendation to reverse the misguided decision by the former education secretary, Estelle Morris, to make languages optional from ages 14 to 16.

When Morris suggested that modern languages should become voluntary at the age of 14, it sent signals through the land that language learning is difficult, uninteresting and reserved for the brightest students. The softener of introducing a language in primary schools, though an excellent idea, has done nothing to encourage languages for teenagers and the resulting fall in numbers taking languages after the age of 14 to 16, at university and on PGCE courses, was inevitable.

Now, at long last, there are signs of optimism. The primary scheme has taken off well and is gaining momentum and the Government, rightly alarmed at the effects of its policies, put pressure on schools to ensure a minimum take-up of 50 per cent after 14. Then it announced the Dearing Inquiry.

We are lagging behind the rest of the world and this must stop. Before making suggestions, we should take a page out of the global scrapbook. Hardly anywhere else in the world is the question asked, "Shall we teach languages beyond the age of 14?" but rather, "Which language and how many languages should be taught?" In France the core subjects are French, maths and a foreign language and elsewhere in Europe the pattern is the same. I have recently visited countries where children work with the most meagre of resources but switch from language to language with great ease.

In Ecuador, children living in the jungle without water or electricity speak their native language at home, then trek through the jungle to their Spanish medium lessons at school. In our Rwandan partner school, most students speak at least three languages - French, English and their native Kinyarwanda. In South Africa, Zulu children do not only learn English as an additional language but are taught other disciplines through English. One teacher I spoke to, Lindi, taught biology but spoke five languages fluently.

In Hockerill College, where I teach, we have a strong bilingual section where children learn history and geography through French or German. We have frequent visitors to see such a rare occurrence on our shores. Everywhere else it is common practice.

Global citizenship is spreading through schools like wildfire. Schools are setting up links throughout the developing world, opening countless possibilities for communication, not necessarily through English. And we shouldn't forget the Olympics, which offer unique opportunities for our youngsters to excel in languages. Surely we should target 2012 as a key year for achieving language competence. We cannot continue to assume that people will automatically speak English when they arrive in the UK. Will we have to scour the rest of Europe and the world to find young people who can communicate with the hundreds of thousands of people who will flock to England? Why can't we instead prepare our students to play this role?

The primary programme must be extended so that every child from Year 3 will have a firm grounding in a modern foreign language. But also, in spite of what Estelle Morris was recommending recently, the Government really must bring languages back as a compulsory subject up to the age of 16. Naturally, this should be done sensitively and creatively. We need to think of a variety of courses to capture young people's imagination. GCSE is not the only qualification. There are interesting business and language courses, citizenship taught through foreign languages and the Asset Languages scheme, an interesting alternative to conventional exams. And language experts should be brought together to set up a range of programmes linked to the Olympics.

To ensure take-up after 16, why not opt for the International Baccalaureate (IB) as we have done at Hockerill? It is a great alternative to A-levels and ensures the study of foreign languages up to the age of 18, as is the norm everywhere else. In the world of business, languages are essential - not everybody either speaks or is willing to speak English. Students well prepared from the age of 16 with language training through the IB, will be in a stronger position to make an impact on international business. We must begin to show the rest of the multilingual world that we are no longer a monolingual race. Now is the time to start.

The writer was Secondary Teacher of the Year in 2005-06 and is director of languages at Hockerill Anglo-European College, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire