For the European Year of Languages, a special Eurobarometer survey took a snapshot of opinion about language learning in all the member states. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK did not score highly in language competence and only 35 per cent of those surveyed claimed to know more than one language (compared with 50 per cent in France and 87 per cent in the Netherlands).
So are those who despair about language competence in this country right to do so? I think not - for reasons which are highlighted in this In the first place, the picture is improving. Two years ago, a similar survey reported that only 21 per cent could speak a second language. Figures produced by the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education show an even greater improvement, with 42 per cent of UK adults claiming to speak one or more foreign languages.
But what is particularly significant is the Eurobarometer response to the questions about attitudes towards language learning. When asked whether "foreign language skills are useful", 74 per cent of the supposedly monolingual inhabitants of these islands said they were and about the same proportion thought that "everyone should speak at least one foreign language". In both cases this was above the European average.
We might, therefore, wonder why there is such a discrepancy between the "competent" 35 per cent and the apparently "committed" 74 per cent (or rather more if we are to follow the 1999 National Opinion Poll cited by the Nuffield Inquiry). In the real world beyond the polls, it is almost a truism that adults are enthusiastic about learning languages. Anyone who has attended an adult language class, whether as learner or teacher, knows that .
So why is there a problem? Part of the answer doubtless resides in the continuing and rather pervasive view that English is, after all, an internationl language and so, while foreign languages have their place, they are not so indispensable: the "yes but" or "not yet" response to the languages challenge.
When it comes to parental languages in schools, many teachers may feel there is still room for a more whole-hearted commitment to language learning in society at large. Parents who feel their own language learning experiences at school were poor or inadequate may not feel able to provide encouragement and support to their children when it is needed - for example helping out with homework.
We know from a recent study carried out at Homerton College, Cambridge, that parents feel less equipped to help with languages than with any other subject. Although this is dispiriting for teachers struggling to enthuse their pupils, there may be a positive message in all this. If people think that languages are important, but feel they do not have the means to to learn them (or help their children learn them), then the problems are more practical than philosophical.
Offering practical support for both pupils and parents will create a more positive context in which language teachers can go about their work. This in turn will help to build even stronger positive attitudes towards language learning - a central aim of the Year of Languages and firmly on the agenda of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research and its partners for 2001 and beyond.
"Face to face: developing a language policy for a multilingual society", a conference and festival organised by CILT as the centrepiece event for the European Year of Languages in the United Kingdom, will take place at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham, on October 10.
Further details can be obtained from CILT conferences, tel: 020 7379 5101 ext 229, or see the website at www.eyl2001.org.uk
Lid King is director of CILT, 20 Bedfordbury, London WC2N 4LB. E-mail: email@example.com