The government hopes to double its funding for languages teaching next year to help achieve its goal of every child in Scotland speaking 1+2 languages - their mother tongue plus two others.
Learning minister Alasdair Allan told MSPs last week that, subject to parliamentary agreement of the 2013-14 budget bill, he would provide initial funding of pound;4 million on top of the pound;4 million already provided annually to local authorities for languages.
The funding pledge follows publication last month of the Scottish government's Languages Working Group report, chaired by Simon Macaulay, which called for all Scots pupils to start learning a second language in P1 and a third in P5 by 2020.
Dr Allan told the Scottish Parliament that he recognised an earlier start to language learning would raise challenges for schools.
"However, we know that there is untapped potential in the system, with many teachers who are trained in languages not having the opportunity to make use of (it)," he said.
The report recommended an increase of two to three times the previous languages fund of pound;4 million and pointed out that this fund had, since 2008, lost its ring-fenced protection.
Dr Allan's immediate response to the report was to provide pound;120,000 to fund pilot projects in 2012-13, to be run by Education Scotland and SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages. He also increased SCILT's funding next year from pound;350,000 to pound;500,000. The additional pound;4 million, if agreed, would be on top of this.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay pointed out that language provision in primary schools was often ad hoc and inconsistent due to staffing, training or funding issues.
He called for a "major training initiative" to implement the proposed languages programme but questioned whether sufficient resources were available.
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith argued: "We cannot expect there to be sufficient rigour in language teaching unless the pupils have a proficiency in English. Many language teachers will say that they find life increasingly difficult because too many of their pupils come to them without a good grasp of basic grammar in English and therefore, naturally, have little chance of picking up a second language, never mind a third."
Some of the decline in pupils sitting SQA exams in languages had begun at the same time as fewer universities required them to have an additional language in their S4 and S5 exam diet, she added. "When we are debating the merits of a baccalaureate system, there is an opportunity to look at how that might play out in relation to university entrance," said Ms Smith.
The government's ambitious language programme could not be achieved without substantially increasing the number of foreign language assistants in schools, she argued.
Liam McArthur, education spokesman for the LibDems, pointed out that the number of foreign language assistants in Scotland had plummeted from 284 in 2005-06 to 70 this year.
"We have 3 per cent of the UK total, while Northern Ireland, with a third of our population, has 60 per cent more," he said.
MSP pleas for Punjabi lessons
Glasgow Labour MSP Hanzala Malik made a special plea for schools to teach Punjabi.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority had said there was insufficient demand for the language to justify running exams in it; Scottish pupils wishing to acquire a qualification in Punjabi had to do so through the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, an English exam body, he said.
But Punjabi was, after English, the most widely spoken language in Scotland, he argued.
"Although it is possible to gain Standard grade and Higher qualifications in Urdu and Cantonese, no such qualifications or teaching are available for the Punjabi language . despite the fact there are more than 2 million Punjabi speakers in the UK."