France's education ministry plans to recruit English speakers and other foreign nationals to help introduce language courses to all primary schools.
From this September all primary pupils in their last year will have to learn a foreign language, education minister Claude All gre announced last week. The same will apply to those in the year below from 1999. But first the minister must tackle a severe shortage of linguistically competent French primary teachers.
Explaining the need to start teaching languages earlier, M. All gre quoted a recent survey revealing more than three in five French people cannot speak English, nearly nine in 10 know no Spanish or German, and two-thirds of adults are incapable of holding a telephone conversation or reading a newspaper in a foreign language.
Pupils currently start their first compulsory foreign language when they begin coll ge (lower secondary), and their second two years later. But during the past decade schemes to teach languages have been introduced in some primary schools.
In 1989 Lionel Jospin - then education minister, now prime minister - launched EILE (Enseignement d'initiation aux langues etrangeres) for pupils in the two final primary years.
Three years ago conservative minister Francois Bayrou introduced Sans Fronti res, a rolling programme relying on volunteer classroom teachers and giving 15 minutes' daily foreign language exposure starting with seven-year olds.
Education authorities will have to dovetail the schemes as best they can.
By September some pupils will have been studying one of several languages for between one and three years, while others will not yet have started at all.
As already happens with EILE, voluntary secondary teachers, classroom assistants and other trained outsiders will help make up staff numbers, and initial and continuing language courses will be added to primary teacher-training programmes.
M All gre will also hire an extra 1,000 foreign assistants, mostly exchange trainee teachers of French, whose numbers were slashed under Francois Bayrou. They will work under the classroom teacher.