Once again, we are becoming the language dunces of Europe

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The Independent Online

In an increasingly globalised economy, we need more of our students to learn languages – preferably up to degree or A-level standard – not less.

The news today of a drop in the number of candidates taking French and German GCSEs is alarming enough in itself. However, as the Association for Language Learning – the group that represents all language teachers – points out, this year's fall could well be a drop in the ocean compared with two years' time when the effect of the Government's proposal to make language learning voluntary for all pupils from the age of 14 becomes apparent.

Many schools have already jumped the gun and plan to make the subject voluntary from September. Worryingly, again, the vast majority of those that have done so are inner-city state schools; this raises the danger that language learning is left as an activity for those who live in the leafy suburbs or go to independent schools.

In an increasingly globalised economy, we need more of our students to learn languages – preferably up to degree or A-level standard – not less. Our past reputation as being the language dunces of Europe (we are the only European country not to insist on the teaching of a modern foreign language in primary school) is in danger of being restored. Incredibly, this reinforcement of our reputation for cultural arrogance is happening when Britain is edging, albeit far too slowly, ever closer to Europe.

The Government is planning to publish its own language strategy document in the autumn. It will call for much more investment in teaching languages in primary schools. That is all well and good, but it talks of giving every pupil the right to learn a language from the age of seven – not of making the subject compulsory. The proposal may have been drafted in the way it was because of fears over whether schools would be able to recruit enough teachers, but it does appear to indicate, yet again, a lack of commitment to improving the take-up of languages. It is quite obvious that if large numbers of pupils do start learning languages at seven they will find them easier to master; this will also make them better disposed to continuing with the subject when they reach the age of 14. However, the entitlement is not expected to come into effect until 2012, while the subject is likely to become voluntary for 14-year-olds several years earlier. During that period, the only experience of learning a language for many pupils will be between the ages of 11 and 14 – making us unique in Europe again.

The UK ambassadors of various European countries – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – have voiced their concerns to The Independent about the state of language teaching in Britain today. They have spoken of their worries that there are so few pupils learning languages in Britain that it has become impossible to organise much-valued exchanges with their pupils. Again they were speaking before this latest proposal to make languages voluntary from the age of 14 had been put forward. It appears, though, that no one in Whitehall is listening to their complaints, reinforcing the often-held view that we in Britain think we will be all right when we go abroad because everyone else speaks our language.

Tony Blair does not think that. He gained enormous respect abroad when he became our first prime minister to address the French parliament in its own language. He may have led by personal example on that occasion, but it is a pity he has not managed to transform this example into a wider government policy encouraging more take-up of language learning in our state schools. Mr Blair must recognise before it is too late that this is a political, economic and cultural faux pas.