The former Strathclyde Region director of education was addressing a Scottish conference in Stirling last week organised by the Nuffield Foundation inquiry into modern languages, of which he is the Scottish member.
His remarks came just after the Education Minister's announcement of an action group on modern languages teaching, following an HMI report which revealed significant weaknesses in how the subject is taught.
Mr Pignatelli said he hoped the group would concentrate on "the big picture" about brand image and market share rather than continue "the sterile debate of the last 20 years" about resources, time, options columns and whether the subject should be for all pupils or just the most able.
But he feared the action group, chaired by John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire and a former Strathclyde colleague, could end up as "a group of modern linguists talking to each other about modern languages chaired by a former secondary head who is a scientist".
Although the Nuffield inquiry is an attempt to estimate the requirements of business and the public over the next 20 years as well as those of education, the conference focused almost entirely on the needs of schools. This was largely because nobody from the business world turned up despite 200 invitations having been sent out. Only 50 were sent to educationists. Alan Moys, secretary to the inquiry, insisted this did not reflect lack of interest from employers.
Mr Moys said other countries were not more successful because languages were taught better. "It is because they work in a national context where the need to learn another language goes without saying."
The inquiry, which is due to report in a year's time, is likely to call for a national strategy on language learning. Mr Moys hoped this could capitalise on a recent opinion poll finding that only 8-14 per cent thought fluency in English was enough.
A large majority believed acquiring other languages was important, although he conceded this was more strongly felt among young people and professionals. But there appears to be little consensus about the contribution of schools and how much should be left to post-school learning.
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