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A lesson for Britain: Language teaching in schools needs a boost

It cannot be left to private schools to go beyond a smattering of French

Foreign language teaching in British schools is in crisis. The take-up for language courses is declining so precipitately that almost half our university language departments may have to close in a few years. Research by the European Commission last year put young Britons almost at the bottom of the European class in terms of their grasp of a foreign language. Only 9 per cent of our 14 to 15-year-olds were deemed proficient in one foreign subject. The average in the rest of Europe was 42 per cent.

In a global economy, which is increasingly dominated by China rather than Anglophone America, it looks like the wrong way to go, which is why it is encouraging to hear that some schools like Harrogate Grammar are vigorously bucking the trend. In this non-selective academy, all students study a combination of French plus either German, Spanish or Italian. Around 24 languages are studied in total, thanks to a deal with the Rosetta Stone language experts. The school’s aim is to create a different culture from the one prevailing in most schools, one where the question is no longer, “Why study languages?” but “Which ones shall I study?”

It is good to learn that experts see Harrogate Grammar as a model because countering the trend towards knowledge of only one language is a noble ideal, as well as profitable from the point of view of Britons competing in the global jobs market. If all  our children learned a foreign language properly it would be almost be a second Enlightenment, because confinement to English alone inevitably limits appreciation of other cultures. Indeed, it is a manifestation of an ugly cultural supremacism.

If we don’t want a situation in which only private school pupils know more than a smattering of French – in which knowledge of another language is another badge of class distinction – we need to look to Harrogate Grammar’s example, as well as revisiting policy changes that made languages optional at GCSE level.