Continental Europe may now be just a short trip through the Channel Tunnel, but for many English children it might as well be a million miles away. And a drive to expand the range of languages taught in schools, launched by the Government in the late 1980s, appears to be running out of steam.
Language teachers who met in London last week are now seeking a new strategy to tackle England's traditional linguistic backwardness. The meeting, held by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, followed the release of a survey showing that the Government's diversification policy is under threat because of a shortage of qualified teachers. The survey of more than 1,100 schools, carried out by CILT and The TES and published last week, found that the main reason for the slowdown was difficulty in recruiting specialist staff.
Dr Lid King, director of CILT, said : "The central need is for continued support to teachers in implementing change, in normalising language learning and in making a reality of languages for all and for life."
A two-year Government-sponsored pilot scheme was set up in 10 LEAs in 1988 to increase the number of languages taught. John Budd, modern languages adviser for Avon, one of the pilot councils, said that progress made then had already been eroded.
When the project ended in 1990, 35 out of 58 schools in the authority offered a first foreign language other than French (in the overwhelming majority of cases it was German). Four years later the total offering a different option had fallen to 31, Mr Budd said. Difficulties in recruiting staff and curriculum restrictions caused by falling pupil numbers were the main problems. "If the aim is still to have a range of languages other than French, there cannot be any complacency," he said.
Another obstacle is lack of information about which languages are taught in which schools. The Department for Education and Employment can only supply national projections from a 10 per cent sample of schools.
A survey unveiled at the meeting by Ernesto Macaro, lecturer in education at Reading University, found that British children felt least European of all those questioned in several countries. More than 90 per cent of the Dutch children, and around two-thirds of the German and Spanish, said they had a strong sense of being European - a feeling shared by a mere 18.6 per cent of English pupils.
Four out of five English pupils thought being able to speak French on holiday was a good reason for learning it - but only a quarter thought it would be useful for getting to know French people.
A study of pupils in three countries in an EU-funded project suggested that the most effective learning strategies included silent practice, self-testing and speaking the language whenever possible.
The bad news was that British pupils - especially boys - were less likely than their Italian and Spanish counterparts to use most of these strategies.