Ordinary working class children should have the same access to learning foreign languages from a young age as those who attend private school, according to former EastEnders star Larry Lamb.
Society needs to stop treating languages as “something special” that were the preserve of the few and immerse all children in foreign tongues, said the actor, who learnt four languages through evening classes and living abroad.
Even in schools where the majority of children have English as a foreign language, pupils should learn a new language together as it is “a great leveller", Mr Lamb said, who is an advocate for the Association of Language Learning (ALL).
The soap star, who also played Mick Shipman in the hit comedy series Gavin and Stacey, criticised the lack of resources given to enable primary schools to immerse pupils in foreign languages as soon as they start.
“We don't value our younger generation enough. Look what happens if you can afford to send your kids to an independent school: you expect them to get something of everything, you certainly expect them to get languages, sports, a flavour of everything. As far as I'm concerned, that should set the tone.”
According to Mr Lamb, it often surprised people he could speak fluent French with a good accent – something he picked up at grammar school and through living in France for several years, he said.
“We don't expect working class people to have foreign languages, it's seen more of a posh thing, " he said. "But everybody should learn because everybody can.
“It's not about class or background, learning a language makes no distinction if you are a working class person I don't think. It shouldn't be about that at all.
“It doesn't involve any particular intellectual power to learn a language and it's a natural absorptive process. You will learn if you are exposed to it and you want to learn to communicate."
Another problem in England was that it is no longer obligatory to learn a foreign language to GCSE. The proportion of children being entered for languages fell from 76 per cent in 2002 to 40 per cent in 2011 and now stands at 48 per cent, following their inclusion in the EBac measure of school performance.
“If you don't have to have a language to be considered a well-educated person in this country, that is the root of the problem,” he said.
Mr Lamb, who will chair a session at next week's ALL annual conference, spoke out just a week after the latest Language Trends survey 2013/2014 found that a quarter of primary schools do not have any member of staff with any foreign language expertise.
This comes just months before the introduction of statutory modern foreign languages in primary schools this September.
The survey revealed that the vast majority of schools had already introduced languages to some extent, but only 42 per cent felt they were prepared for the new, more demanding curriculum.
The conference next Friday and Saturday will feature a broad range of talks and seminars, tackling everything from the connections between languages and maths, to the value of Latin and coping with policy developments in language education.