Languages are now a skill for life

It is essential that language learning starts in primary school and continues post-16, believes Trevor McDonald

The Nuffield Languages Inquiry was given a very clear task. My eminent colleagues and I were asked to determine what capability in languages the United Kingdom will need in the next 20 years, if it is to fulfil its economic, strategic, social and cultural responsibilities and aims, and meet the aspiration of its citizens.

We were asked to make a judgment about how we are doing at the moment and, if we were falling short of fulfilling our needs as a nation, we were asked to say what should be done to try to change that.

One point which proved inescapable was the passion in our country for education in all its forms. The Secretary of State for Education hammers away continually at improving standards in numeracy and literacy. On the issue of languages, ministers have talked about exploring new ways to develop the concept of early learning, an issue taken up in a lecture in Oxford some months ago by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

That interest demonstrated to me and my colleagues on the inquiry how terribly misguided it is to see Britain as a narrow-minded, monolingual country whose inhabitants are poor at languages, reluctant to learn them, and often have no interest in them in the first place.

The facts suggest the opposite, however. More people than ever are interested in learning languages. Some want to be able to use the modern foreign language they learn on holiday. Others seek to be able to write and use it in their professional life. All want to do better than they are doing at the moment.

None of this diminishes the importance of English, of course, a global language of growing popularity and with an enduring reputation for richness and great beauty.

The point of departure for our inquiry, though, was that English alone will not equip our young people for 21st-century life. The world has become much too interconnected and interdependent for that. Our international interests are widely spread in business, social and cultural terms. They take in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, South America, China, Japan and a host of other countries in south-east Asia.

We simply cannot hope to pursue those interests if we imprison ourselves in a culture of monolingualism. In the smart and competitive world of the 21st century, exclusive reliance on English leaves the UK vulnerable and dependent on the linguistic competence and goodwill of others.

Whenever we are tempted to become carried away by the fact that so many people around the world speak English and speak it well, we should remember that foreigners do not learn English for our benefit.

So what do we need to do as a nation?

One of the key recommendations of our inquiry is that the Government must take the lead in elevating languages and language learning to the status of a key skill alongside literacy and numeracy.

That would, of course, require a national strategy for developing capablity in languages in the UK, and a sustained campaign to promote positive attitudes towards languages. The culture should be one in which using more than one language is seen as an attainable goal for the majority.

If such a goal is to be achieved, it follows that young children should be given a flying start. The Government should declare a firm commitment to early language learning for all children and it should invest in the long-term policies to make it possible for pupils to begin learning a new language from the age of seven.

We found a great deal of evidence to support the view that children who are given the chance to begin learning a new language at a very early age do much better than those who start later. Indeed, some experts would advocate starting pupils on a new language as early as five. We thought that language learning in secondary schools should be up-rated to provide a wider range of languages and a more flexible menu to cater better for different needs, abilities and interests.

Right from the start we tried to make it clear, as I suggested earlier, that we were not only talking about learning French, German, Spanish and Italian. The range of our international interests makes Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Portuguese important, too.

All pupils should leave secondary education equipped with the foundation language skills and the skills for further learning in later life.

Perhaps our most worrying finding is that while more pupils than ever before now learn a language to age 16, too few leave school with an adequate level of operational competence.

The staggering figure for me was that nine out of 10 children stop learning languages at 16. One of the big problems is that most young people are faced with the harsh choice at 16 of either specialising in languages or giving them up.

Perhaps one way to change that would be to make a language a requirement for university entry and for designated vocational qualifications. It is a radical proposal, but its adoption would help to raise the profile of languages and send an unmistakable signal that language learning should not be regarded as an option to be discarded casually.

All these proposals would require concerted effort to break out of the vicious circle of inadequate teacher supply. We must find a way in Britain to attract more language teachers and perhaps the time has come for a series of radical short-term measures to improve recruitment levels. We might begin the task by making better use of opportunities opened up by European links and funding.

During the course of this inquiry, we found many excellent initiatives in the current system. Hundreds of people up and down the country have committed themselves to improving language learning in our schools. But we need to do even better. In practical terms this demands a coherent national strategy for languages. Only the Government can take the lead in that.

Sir Trevor McDonald was chairman of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry

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