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Slip of the tongues leaves us tied to a monolingual future

The woefully wrong decision to drop compulsory foreign languages in secondary schools is coming home to roost. Fewer and fewer students are studying them at A-level while universities are finding it hard to retain departments in foreign languages and culture. That means Britain is producing fewer teachers specialising in German, French or Russian. Thus the dreary spiral of turning our schools into foreign-language-free zones continues.

All this was predicted when Estelle Morris, then Education Secretary, gave way to the monolingualists in Great Smith Street and decided to lift the state schools' obligation to try at least to put some knowledge of European languages into the heads of the next generation.

What is surprising is the speed of the reduction in language teaching in schools. Now, university teachers are in open panic about the declining numbers of applicants to study foreign languages at degree level.

As Europe Minister at the time of the decision, I fought in vain to get the Department for Education and Skills to reconsider. But in the finest Whitehall tradition it was made clear that it was no business of a Europe minister to argue that Europe's languages should feature on the school curriculum. Other than Tony Blair who, as a result of this policy error, may be the last British Prime Minister with a working knowledge of another European tongue (French), the upper reaches of ministerial cohorts are strictly monolingual.

It is alarming that Britain is opting for monolingualism in a globalised world. The first sight that greets a visitor at a United States airport are signs in Spanish as well as English. The US is well on its way to becoming a bilingual country. In the rest of Europe, it would be unthinkable to have ministers, editors or business leaders who were monolingual.

It is not just a question of Britain's economic future. Who, after all, knows England who only English knows? From Shakespeare to James Joyce, the greatest shapers of our language have known other tongues from which they have deliberately or unconsciously stolen words, cadences, or simply been inspired to write better English. Education policy-makers have bemoaned, often justifiably, the quality of foreign language teaching in schools.

Bored students have sat through too many lessons on the French subjunctive or worried about how to pronounce a German vowel with an umlaut, and have left school barely able to order a beer on the other side of the Channel.

But that was a challenge to change the way European languages were taught, not to eliminate them. Starting language studies at the age of 11 was too late. Children need to pick up languages at an early age when they are not self-conscious about making silly mistakes or mispronuncing words.

A defence from Whitehall was to encourage language clubs at primary level.

But if teachers and students know that secondary teaching of foreign languages is not obligatory after the age of 11, there will be little incentive to get serious about the subject at an earlier age.

As a minister, I started to explore with other governments whether they could use the internet to communicate directly with pupils at home as well as in school in a way that was tailored to the pupil's personal interests.

Britain is full of young Europeans working for modest salaries to improve their English. Why are these people not able to enter the classroom and be part of the school culture so that hearing French or Spanish spoken in the corridors and school canteens becomes the norm? Also, the businesses setting up the new academies should encourage foreign language teaching if Britain is to have the communication skills to compete in the modern world.

At some time in the future, Britain will wake up to what has surely been education policy-makers' worst mistake so far this century. But by then there may be no more university teaching of European languages, and it will be too late.

Denis MacShane Labour MP for Rotherham and former Europe minister, 2001-05

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