But there is a new feeling around that perhaps this does not matter quite so much as we had thought. English, I hear people saying, is the global language of the future. Our efforts should go into improving what is one of our greatest economic assets, rather than into the unrewarding business of teaching foreign languages that people feel little incentive to learn.
This is an attitude that needs combating. First, because it neglects the continuing value of language fluency in international communications. Secondly, because it ignores the educational value of learning about another culture from the inside, through proficiency in its language. Thirdly, and more profoundly, because we need to preserve the world's amazing linguistic diversity. We respect languages that are threatened by the march of English linguistic imperialism by taking the trouble to study them.
But how do we set about improving our national record in languages? Our situation is very different from that of our European neighbours. Unlike them we are not constantly exposed to another language, and so do not have the same incentive to become more fluent in it at school. But trying to increase exposure to other languages outside school is made more difficult by our policy of encouraging a variety of foreign languages in schools. In the Netherlands, all children learn English as their first foreign language. They are also constantly exposed to English outside school.
There are excellent reasons why we encourage a number of languages, but is it perhaps another example of how the English educational system tends to make things more complicated than they need to be? There is also something to be said for an arrangement by which a country engages in a continuing dialogue with one other country whose language has a favoured place in its curriculum. This is the case currently with French.
France has traditionally occupied a special place in England's consciousness, through a shared history and constant cultural exchange. But should this situation be allowed to continue? There are powerful arguments, not least of sentiment, to suggest that it should, though we are often reminded that Spanish is spoken by far more people worldwide.
These issues were discussed at last week's international conference on modern foreign languages organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA). The main focus of the conference was to discuss whether one solution to our problems would be to introduce children to a foreign language at an earlier age. One in five primary schools in England has already chosen to do this, for at least some of their pupils. Scotland is a long way down the road to requiring this in all its primary schools.
But is it the solution? Should our efforts go into starting children on foreign languages earlier, or into greater encouragement to keep them going post-16? What are the opportunity costs of including a modern foreign language in the primary curriculum?
With two out of five pupils still not reaching the target level in English at the age of 11, would it not be better to concentrate on achieving basic literacy in English? What would need to be cut from the present curriculum to make space for a compulsory foreign language?
There is no doubt that there are advantages in catching children young, that primary language programmes can work and that the rest of the curriculum (including English) can benefit. But would a national programme be worthwhile, given the massive implications of such an exercise for initial and in- service teacher training and the dangers of turning children off languages at an early age if we get it wrong?
The SCAA conference was generally of the view that we should move towards a national programme, and that some of the many problems involved in mounting such a programme might be tackled through extensive use of interactive computer technology.
However, any future decision about primary modern languages will need to take into account that there are other educational priorities, and that resources are finite.
We need to take forward the debate about the best ways of teaching languages. What sticks in my mind from the conference is an account of eight-year- olds in war-torn Croatia successfully learning French, having learned grammatical concepts in Serbo-Croat at the age of seven. There may be lessons in this, not just for teaching foreign languages.
The writer is chief executive of the School Curriculum Assessment Authority.Reuse content