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Fifth-years snub French and German

French is taken by just 9 per cent of fifth-year pupils and German by 4 per cent, the September 1997 school census has revealed.

This latest confirmation of the parlous condition of foreign languages in schools comes in the week when the Nuffield Foundation announced a major year-long inquiry into Britain's poor showing in languages (page nine).

The census shows that drama is the only one of 20 mainstream subjects less popular than French in fifth year, and even it beats German with 5 per cent of pupils studying either a Higher or National Certificate module (just 1 per cent choose general science in S5, but it is not a Higher subject).

Another 6 per cent take French and 3 per cent opt for German in sixth year, most of them on a Higher course.

The reasons behind the fall-off in modern languages after the first four compulsory years of secondary are currently the subject of a special research project being carried out for the Scottish Office by the institute of education at Stirling University and the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Brian Wilson has said the decline in modern language teaching in secondary schools was one of the surprising disappointments in his first year as Education Minister. He believes the immersion approach adopted by Gaelic-medium teaching from primary 1 onwards (instead of primary 6) could hold a key to generating greater competence and enthusiasm for other languages in the later years.

The TES Scotland recently revealed that there is likely to be Scottish Office support for piloting the extension of the Gaelic model to French and German. Aberdeen has offered to blaze the trail. Experts in languages believe schools have to adopt an entirely new approach if pupils' motivation to take up languages is to improve.

Dick Johnstone, head of Stirling University's institute of education, told a European seminar held in Stirling in April that "partial competence" in other languages could turn the tide, reinforced by a more widespread use of new technologies and school contacts across national boundaries.

Professor Johnstone's Pounds 93,000 study with the research council into the reasons for the decline in modern language uptake in the upper secondary is expected to incorporate these ideas for the Scottish Office to digest. It is due to be completed in the autumn after a two-year investigation.

The Education Minister has promised to mount an awareness campaign to persuade young people of the advantages of multilingualism, enlisting celebrities such as footballers and war correspondents to highlight the practical benefits.

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