IN the First World War, British soldiers were sent into battle with not only a rifle but a French phrasebook. Sitting in their muddy trenches they would mouth such phrases as Voulez-vous m'aider a aller au poste de secours? (Will you help me to go to the dressing station?) More than 80 years later it is our businessmen who go into "combat" clutching their phrasebooks or translators. Plus ca change.
Will the European Year of Languages, which gets under way this week in 45 countries, finally help to change our attitude to languages and turn us into the more civilised "plurilinguists" that the European Commission wants us to be? It is a very tall order as the British have traditionally only wanted to speak one of the world's 6,000 languages. But the European Year is certainly needed. Although language learning is much more attuned to children's interests than it was a generation ago, the number of GCSE and A-level languages candidates has fallen dramatically.
English teenagers are taking A-levels in media studies and information technology rather than lnguages. In Wales, the take-up of foreign language courses is even poorer, partly because Welsh is compulsory in secondary schools. And the same downward trend is evident in Scotland, even though the Scots have invested heavily in primary language teaching. In 1976, 11,610 Scots teenagers took Higher Grade French, but by 1997 this figure had fallen to 4,840 (no surprise considering it is particularly hard to obtain good grades in languages exams).
It is, of course, argued that such figures are a reflection of British isolationism and laziness. But teenagers who drop languages at the earliest opportunity are invariably responding to the "real world" pressures of the education and job markets.
Schools may be able to nudge up the numbers by introducing even more stimulating language courses but we are unlikely to see any real change until employers start paying higher salaries to staff with languages skills. In an increasingly interdependent Europe that would seem a sensible move, but it may be many years yet before we ditch our phrasebooks.