Will no one teach me?

When Edmund Woodfield looked for a school where he could learn Russian he found it impossible. Nicholas Pyke on a crisis in minority languages
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The Independent Online

Russian is one of the harder languages to master, particularly for a teenager. Neither the vocabulary nor the pronunciation is familiar, and the country itself lies 1,500 miles away, on the other side of the Continent. Then there's the writing, the Cyrillic script that looks like Greek but isn't, and remains impenetrable to most of us in the West. But for Edmund Woodfield, 14, the toughest part about learning Russian is nothing to do with the future imperfect, nor even the six different declensions per noun. The main stumbling- block is the simple absence of any state secondary school willing or able to teach him.

Whatever you read about Chelski, Abramovich, or the swarms of Muscovite businessmen in Knightsbridge, the Russian language itself has seen a 20-year decline in the British classroom. It was a fashionable subject during the Cold War, lending an exotic air to the new concrete comprehensive schools. The Foreign Office and MI6 had their own particular interest, encouraging some of the best and brightest graduates to specialise. Yet today, few schools bother with it, few adult colleges can afford to teach it, and the number of university departments is dwindling, now down to 21. The situation is even said to have concerned the British Council, whose core business - promoting UK culture and language - is made significantly harder by our refusal to take anyone else's language seriously.

There is no shortage of demand for lessons, either, boosted by an influx of Russian brides, and the regular presence of pupils on exchange from Belarus. As Eastern Europe grows ever closer, the economic and cultural potential of the Slavonic languages is huge. Ten new countries, including Poland and the Czech and Baltic republics, join the EU on 1 May. Nobody pretends that Czech is a mainstream language, but the appetite for learning Eastern European languages can only grow. Russia, meanwhile, and its language and economy are dominant forces for a sizeable part of the European landmass, and are already making themselves felt in the UK.

Yet, if Edmund Woodfield's experience is at all typical - and it appears to be - we remain astonishingly ill-prepared. When he and his family tried to find a state-funded GCSE course, there was nothing within reach of Tunbridge Wells, where they live. None of the local schools offer Russian, and none appear to have links with other schools that do. Edmund, now in Year 9, is too young for adult-education classes and, outside the major cities, these are unlikely to offer a minority language in any case. Even for Kent, a region with a long experience of mixing with foreigners, Russian is a step too far.

"At times it's frustrating, because far more people speak Russian worldwide than French or German," he says. "There are no revision guides available for GCSE Russian, which makes it hard to gauge when I might be ready to apply to be a private GCSE candidate."

Edmund has resorted instead to CDs and books published by Ruslan Ltd, which, in the absence of the BBC or other commercial competitors, dominates the market. Even John Langran, the company director and a former Russian tutor, has so far been unable to find a school where his son can learn Russian. "The lost potential at the moment is enormous," he says. Only around 1,750 pupils a year take the subject at GCSE, many of them the children of Russian parents; 500 take A-level, and, according to figures compiled by the Association for Language Learning (ALL), only 500 are taking adult-education courses at any one time. Lyudmila Putin, wife of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, is a member of her country's committee for the defence of the language - right now, it seems, her presence is required in Britain.

It is not just Russian that is suffering. If anything, it is better off than other minority languages because at least it features in public discussion. The Scandinavian languages, Dutch, Hindi and Arabic all have major commercial significance, but you would be hard-pressed to find a course at university, let alone at a state-funded secondary school. Despite a decade of fine words about language-learning, even the mainstays, French and German, are now beleaguered. Languages were recently dropped as a compulsory part of the post-14 curriculum, and have not been made an obligatory part of the Tomlinson committee's proposed new qualification, as many had hoped. There is a shortage of people coming forward to train as language teachers, an ominous sign for the future. In a climate where the original lingua franca is feeling the strain, it is no wonder that less popular tongues are also losing out.

Edmund attends the Judd Grammar School for Boys in nearby Tonbridge, a school that has a thriving languages department. It applauds Edmund's interest in Russian, and is willing to pay the examination entrance fee if he gets that far. But, as Keith Starling, the head, explains, there is no way that Judd or any other school could afford to spend thousands of pounds on a course for just one or two pupils. Even hosting the exam is tricky: "You need oral examiners, and you can't get one to come for just one pupil." he says. "Also, when you look at the GCSE boards, you find that there's a very limited number of languages that they examine. One of our pupils was forced to sit an alternative exam with the Institute of Linguists."

The lack of qualified teachers is another issue of concern, he says, because even mainstream languages are now seen as shortage subjects: "It has been suggested to me that in 10 years time, it will be difficult to offer German."

Adult education, too, is struggling to cope with minority languages. Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder, spokeswoman on Dutch for the Association of Language Learning, has spent more than 20 years teaching evening-classes. But it has become progressively more difficult to earn a living because colleges deem such classes unviable. The further away from London you are, she says, the harder it is to find a class. The Government's funding regime seems partly to blame: "You can only run a course where there's an exam or accreditation at the end. And as soon as they have taken the exam, they have to move on." So, for students who have already done a couple of years, there is no funding. As a result, Mitchell-Schuitevoerder is reduced to teaching private groups in their homes, and knows of only one Dutch course for adults in the whole of the North-east, where she now lives.

Universities have problems of their own, with language departments facing relentless cuts. Durham has got rid of its eastern Asian languages, including Japanese, and Hull recently shut down its Dutch and Scandinavian courses. Polish, Arabic and Portuguese have seen closures, and Italian is hanging on by its fingertips. Even Cambridge has slimmed down its East European languages. The number of graduates emerging has declined by more than a fifth since 1995.

Even so, higher education could do more to change the atmosphere, says David Melville, vice-chancellor at the University of Kent, which has recently formed an umbrella group of specialist language schools in the county. "We're concerned about language teaching for all kinds of reasons. Our plan is to support language schools. Just as we get young people to visit universities here, for example, we're getting them to visit partner universities in France."

The language colleges he refers to seem to be the main ray of hope for Russian specialists. There are now more than 50 state secondary schools offering some form of tuition. The language colleges held their first Russian conference in December. As more schools adopt language specialisms the coverage will improve.

Andrew Jameson, the academic and translator who chairs ALL's Russian committee, is optimistic about the apparent rebirth of the subject, but remains concerned at the lack of teacher training. There is only one university training department offering Russian. He also feels that, collectively, the universities have failed to present a united case for the subject. "Why is the Government allowing language departments to be marginalised if they are into encouraging an understanding of foreign cultures?" he asks. "The Government must take a positive attitude, try to establish the country's needs and provide for them."

Susan Bassnett, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick and professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, is blunter still. Languages, she says, are in crisis. Even the German embassy is concerned. Once seen as a soft option, favoured principally by girls, languages no longer have even that advantage, viewed instead as laborious and time-consuming. Part of the problem may be the mainly conversational approach now used in language teaching at schools, which can cut out a broader understanding of the way another culture works.

More fundamental though, she says, is our dismal view of language learning itself, which in Britain we have pushed firmly to the sidelines. "It's an absolute catastrophe. If you don't have access to another language, you're entirely dependent on yourself. With a language, you have a very special knowledge of another culture. Yes, there are proposals of teaching foreign languages in primary schools, starting in 2012. But by then, a lot of university departments will have shut down."

Not only do university language departments need ring-fenced funding, she believes, but the whole field requires a government-backed inquiry, like the one into maths, published earlier this week.