A halting wie geht's is better than nothing

This term I am learning German. Every Thursday I attend an evening class of students whose ages range, at a guess, from 20-something to 60-something. I suppose our teacher would describe us as "mixed ability", but the rest of us don't notice.

The local secondary school where the classes take place hums with the sound of adult learning. Many of us seem to be studying languages: basic (that's me), intermediate or advanced.

I wish Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, could see us. The Government has got itself into a terrible muddle over language teaching in schools. Two years after ministers announced that they were scrapping compulsory languages from the age of 14, they are scrabbling about for ways to halt an alarming decline in the number of pupils taking the subject and the number of graduates wanting to teach it. The growth in specialist language colleges that were supposed to be centres of excellence is fizzling out. Mr Clarke is considering bribery to persuade more schools to lead a revival.

Ministers coupled the decision to cut back secondary languages with an announcement that they would be introduced in every primary school. Quite right. As our European neighbours demonstrate, this is the best time to start learning a language. Children of primary age are more biddable and worry much less than teenagers about the reason for doing something. When I was eight, my primary class obediently learned to recite from memory the books of the Bible without once questioning whether the exercise was strictly necessary.

But the primary school changes will not happen until 2010 and between now and then, thousands of children will miss out both as primary and secondary pupils. Even in 2010, primary languages will be only an "entitlement", a word increasingly used by ministers for changes they would like but aren't brave enough to push through.

We have been here before. In the Seventies, languages were introduced in some primaries and teachers were trained to teach them. The experiment had to be abandoned when secondary schools objected that 11-year-olds were arriving with too wide a spread of knowledge. Those who had already started a language had to start all over again.

The first argument against compulsory languages is that they are too hard, particularly for weaker pupils. Yet Kings college, Guildford, the former failing school with more than its fair share of very difficult pupils, used compulsory languages up to GCSE as part of its recovery plan. A specialist school head told me last week that special needs pupils take languages in his school, even if he has to persuade their parents. The key, he said, was the quality of teaching. If the Government wants to spend money on rescuing languages, it should be directed at attracting, training and retaining good language teachers.

The second argument is that languages are unnecessary as English heads towards world domination. But increasingly, many of us will want to speak other languages, as our children get jobs in China or France or marry citizens of Poland or Germany. And linguistic imperialism is dangerous if we wish, like Mr Clarke, to promote international links.

The message the Government's half-hearted languages policy gives to schools also goes out to the world. Our approach is inextricably tied to our understanding and enjoyment of different cultures and others' attitudes to us. Even a halting "wie geht's?" may say something about how we view the rest of the world.

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