A case of fog on the tongue
The truth is that modern languages in this country is a fiasco. It's all very well pointing to the national curriculum or the successes of individual schools - heroism in the face of total ministerial indifference in my book - but you only have to keep your ears open, even in Kent, to realise that directing lost tourists to Marks and Spencer's in their mother tongue is already beyond the average British citizen. Yet whenever news comes from abroad, the first thing you hear is foreigners from all walks of life speaking English. It might not always be good English, but it's there, and so is the willingness to use it.
There are two reasons for this state of affairs. The first is obvious: in countries abroad, and especially in Europe, English is omnipresent. Pop songs are in English, computer-speak is mostly English, and you don't get into a top American university unless you can speak English. Conversely, since "they" all speak English, there is no incentive for us not to be unilingual. We have much to thank the Americans for, including saving us from second languages.
The second reason is less obvious (and more open to domestic control). It is that "modern languages" always come in the plural. There is no single natural focus for language learning; and the implication is that, if no one language is more compelling than the rest, then there is no point in bothering with any of them.
This situation is made worse by the de facto dominance of French. Various explanations of this oddity do the rounds from time to time, but none carries conviction. It can't be that France is Britain's nearest neighbour; that might be true geographically, but it certainly isn't culturally. When I was at school, I was earnestly told that French was the language of diplomacy. Was that really true even then?
And then there are the TGVs, one of which broke down in Ashford just the other day. Will these spearhead the Gallic cause? Or will they simply encourage more English-speaking enclaves beyond the Channel fog?
However, if French is not important enough to be inevitable, what is? The answer is German. Of itself, Germany is Europe's giant. Geographically enormous, it now stretches from France to Poland; its economy is vast and growing; and if, as the Bonn Republic, it has been Europe's leading political player, it will be that twice over once it fully becomes the Berlin Republic. Add Austria and Switzerland, and there's no doubt about it: after English, German is the European language.
A new modern languages strategy needs to be developed nationally, with German first. We all know - the Germans most of all - that Germany has a dreadful past, and there is no use ignoring the fact. But British schoolchildren also need access to the Germany of the present and future, and that access should be language-led.
The initiative must come from the top: a clear statement that German is going to be given priority; an appropriate rewording of the national curriculum; an allocation of resources; and, at next year's Conservative party conference, something in German from the platform. BMW will do.
Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent