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Refusing to hear the sounds of progress

More languages should be taught in primaries. Peter Newsam explains why.

France has a new Gaullist President and the microscopes are out to see if this will make any difference to the planned programme for foreign language teaching. Probably not. As things stand, from the beginning of the 1995 school year "all primary school children will be introduced to a living foreign language for 15 minutes each day". The teachers will "employ audio-visual techniques" after sustained in-service training.

Yes, but supposing, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that primary teachers in France are no more competent than their colleagues in the UK in a language other than their own?

But the programme has already hurried on to the secondary school. "A second foreign language will be compulsory in the quatrieme" (at the start of key stage 4) and the learning of this second "langue vivante" will become part of the curriculum of the age group caught by the earlier edict applying from 1995.

On to the lycee, though here the language requirement becomes less precise. Through student exchanges, all pupils are to be offered "the possibility of a month's experience in a European institute outside France".

How successful these initiatives will be remains to be seen but, elsewhere in Europe, other plans for improved language learning are hatching. A few months ago, to take just one example, the chief executives of some of Europe's major companies were asking representatives of the rectors of European universities whether they could ensure that one year of every undergraduate course could be spent, again through student exchange, in a university outside a student's own country.

What all this adds up to is a recognition that, quite apart from important cultural considerations, young people looking for employment in the Europe of the 21st century will be at an increasing disadvantage if they can function in only one European language.

But what if English is that language? Surely everyone in Europe will be able to understand English, so what more do native English-speakers need?

Failure to perceive that familiarity with English is a rapidly wasting asset remains pervasive. But when the Dutch or the Swedes - or even the French - can manage in English almost as well as most of us do now, the advantage will lie with those who are at ease in one or more of those other languages.

In these circumstances, it is worth recalling the effort, supported by the Nuffield Foundation, made in the mid-1960s to teach French in some primary schools.

My experience of this in Cumberland and the West Riding led to rather more cheerful conclusions than those of the National Foundation for Educational Research evaluation. It proved perfectly possible for well-trained teachers to teach French to a good standard in primary schools.

Unfortunately, the methods chosen to train those teachers, including residence abroad, were expensive. Too few teachers were trained and there was serious disruption when one moved from a French-teaching school.

But the crucial problem was that secondary schools receiving pupils from 20 to 40 primary schools, only some of which taught French, found it impossible to provide continuity of learning. So all secondary classes tended to start at the beginning again with devastating effects on the motivation of children who had already made good progress with the language.

So, if French or any other language is to be taught in the primary school with any real chance of success, it has to be taught systematically across a wide area and a high proportion of teachers have to be prepared to undertake some of the teaching.

Systematic entitlement of the kind necessary is what the national curriculum used to be about but, with teachers clinging to the wreckage and no change envisaged for five years, that way seems blocked. But could not - and here one enters the realms of fantasy - the Teacher Training Agency decide to do something useful about the future of language teaching? Before qualifying, all primary teachers might be required, or at least invited, to display or acquire a degree of competence in at least one language, European or other, apart from English. They would need time off from school-based work - and maybe some cash incentives.

No such initiative will occur, of course, but the contrast is stark between the attitude of continental Europe to the acquisition of language and our own. It appears at all levels. Those same chief executives of European companies, who can recruit the best from any country, say that it is increasingly their practice not even to call to interview "high-flyers" who are not, whatever their other skills, competent in at least two languages other than their own. Meanwhile, last December, our own "Recruitment and Assessment Services" (the ghost of the old Civil Service Commission?) advertised for "first-rate" UK graduates to train for jobs in the European Commission.

Are such high-flyers encouraged to show competence in any European language? Candidates, the advertisement underlined anxiously, "don't need fluent foreign languages: we'll provide the training to the level required".

This may be realism. But what really may be being underlined is a flaccid acceptance of linguistic incompetence even in recruiting "exceptional graduates".

Exceptional? The only ones in Brussels with the headphones permanently affixed, I suppose.

Sir Peter Newsam recently retired as the director of the University of London Institute of Education.

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