We must learn to communicate with our neighbours

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Those who would like to see Britain lose its reputation as the language dunce of Europe will not be comforted by the decision of 2,000 state schools to make the learning of foreign languages non-compulsory after the age of 14.

Those who would like to see Britain lose its reputation as the language dunce of Europe will not be comforted by the decision of 2,000 state schools to make the learning of foreign languages non-compulsory after the age of 14. Languages are now compulsory at GCSE level in only 30 per cent of state schools, although they continue to flourish in the private sector. Many schools argue that language qualifications are too difficult and steer their pupils toward softer options. The number of candidates taking French and German at GCSE level is declining. If this continues we are destined to remain a stubbornly monolingual nation.

There is, however, little point in decrying the Government's decision to allow schools to make languages optional after 14. Forcing a grumpy teenager with no inclination to learn a language to sit in a French class is pointless. By this age students are either interested in learning languages or they are not. The crucial time to fire their interest is at primary school level.

Britain, alone in Europe, does not insist that children learn another language at primary school. The result is that when children are introduced to other languages at age 11 they are at a disadvantage compared with their continental peers. Too many students end up looking upon languages as a chore - to be dropped at the first opportunity - rather than a fundamental element in a rounded education. The Government has spoken of its desire to make the learning of a language an "entitlement" for primary school children by the end of the decade, but it should be bolder. It should aim to emulate the continental model where learning a language is deemed just as important as subjects such as music, art and history.

What lies behind our unwillingness to learn foreign languages is no mystery. English is one of the most widely spoken languages. British holidaymakers can travel the globe without having to use anything but their native tongue. Employers here rarely demand proficiency in a foreign language. But that is no reason to accept the status quo. Our dismal language skills shut us off from other cultures and will prove harmful to our economic interests. The sooner we learn how to communicate the better.

Comments