THERE is a cliched view that the British are neither very good at nor very interested in languages. However, Trevor McDonald, ITN newscaster and co-chairman of a major inquiry into language learning in the UK, disagrees. He says that many people are taking up foreign tongues later in life.
"Without wishing to prejudge the evidence we have had so far," he says, "what we are coming round to is that people recognise and are rather saddened by how little they learned of some of these languages when they were younger, and they are rather keen to make up for it in adulthood."
Adults interviewed for the Nuffield Languages Inquiry have said there was no understanding of the "need" to learn at school. "But they also said 'I like going to France to buy wine', 'we like going to Calais to the superstores' or 'my children are now doing languages and I think it would be good if I showed an interest'. There is a whole variety of reasons why the take-up in adult education is as strong and lively as it is."
Alan Moys, secretary to the inquiry launched in 1998, says that foreign language learning is one of the most resilient and buoyant areas of adult education. However, one of the problems is that there is such variation in the extent and quality of courses available: there is no coherent, nationally-planned service.
"There are lots and lots of people in adult education wanting to learn languages for all sorts of reasons. People who are prepared to put time and money and effort into doing so, but who find it extremely difficult in many cases to locate satisfactory provision.
"It is very much a lottery as to whether or not they can find what they are looking for in their own area. There are colleges where there are literally hundreds of classes running at various levels and across a range of languages. But go to another town 60 miles away and you will find virtually nothing.
"It is nothing to do with demand, it is always to do with whether or not that demand is being met.
"If there is a good, coherent, well-organised business-like and graded offer to the public, there are customers for it. But where there is not, then you get people buying themselves Do It Yourself courses and Linguaphone courses because there is nothing else for them to do."
The inquiry was set up in the wake of a dramatic fall in the number of undergraduates applying to study languages. It will take stock of the national picture and ask what language capability the country will need in the next 20 years, if present arrangements meet those needs and what strategic planning is required.
The inquiry will report to the trustees of the Nuffield Foundation in January or February 2000. The team has 14 members, half drawn from education and the rest from business. Its other co-chairman is Sir John Boyd, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, agrees that the adult language education service nationally is very patchy - there is some brilliant work being done but it is under-resourced.
Pauleen Swanton, head of languages at Leicester Adult Education College and one of the inquiry's expert witnesses, adds that since incorporation in 1992, a climate of competition between colleges has led to wasteful duplication of beginners' classes.
Mr Moys say: "Course organisers are fearful of offering languages beyond beginner level because they do not know whether they will be able to get the funding."
Alwena Lamping, a languages consultant and member of the inquiry team, said that the Further Education Funding Council was only interested in vocationally-led certificated courses, and not the study of languages for recreational reasons.
There are also, according to Ms Lamping, too many untrained and sometimes unqualified language teachers. Plus there is huge demand but no systems in place to manage that demand, nor any central bodies from which advice can be sought. The result is lack of coherence and insufficient quality control.
"We operate in a vacuum," Ms Lamping says. "Nobody has any real idea of demand." What we need, she says, is an overview of what is happening now, and a vision of what needs to happen in future.
NIACE is to survey 5,000 adults to find out which languages they speak. It will also try to find how much language learning is taking place, and what makes it easier for people to study successfully.
Mr Moys says: "There are still far too many people trying to learn languages in cold draughty school classrooms with no equipment, because the terms under which adult education takes place in other people's buildings do not include access to things like computers, language labs and so on."
According to Mr Tuckett, Britain's multi-lingual communities constitute a huge reservoir of language competence that is largely ignored: 180 languages are spoken in inner London; in Clapham and Battersea, where he used to work, some 90 languages are spoken.
"It is a huge linguistic soup. We are a much more polyglot people than we notice. Some of our most marginalised and poorest people are very skilled linguists.
"Looking at languages is also a window on social exclusion and wasted talent."
26 FE Focus TESJapril 9 1999 'Trevor McDonald has passable French, a little Spanish, some political German and his restaurant Italian is not half bad' And finally . . . people are often keener to learn languages as adults, says Trevor McDonald