Blip turning into a trend
Are languages useful? "Not really, unless you're going to France." Opinions such as this, from a pupil in an ordinary London comprehensive school, may encourage a belief that languages are becoming a problem area of the school curriculum. Is such lack of motivation among 14 to 16-year-olds the reason for a decline in take-up of languages post-16?
Certainly we are facing serious recruitment problems for advanced language studies in schools and colleges. From a high point of more than 50,000 in 1992, the total number of entries for A-level languages fell last year to 42,000.
In Scotland the situation is, if anything, even worse. There is no indication that things will be any better in the year 2000.
Even in traditionally successful modern language departments, there are reports of falling numbers opting for languages post-16. As one Essex head of department said, "it is getting harder each year to persuade pupils to carry on with their languages". What started as a blip seems to have become a trend. Why does it matter and what can be done about it?
It matters for a host of reasons. There is the argument about this country's national economic needs - an argument supported by ministers, government departments and, increasingly, the public at large. Last year a National Opinion Poll indicated that 86 per cent of the population thought foreign language competence was at least useful.
It also matters for the individual. Foreign language competence is becoming a condition for mobility (and employability); the ability to understand other cultures is a necessary component of modern citizenship.
More immediately, it matters because if the supply of specialist linguists dries up in our schools it will create a long-term problem which will take many years to resolve.
Already the numbers opting for honours language degees and PGCE courses are falling.
Are we then facing a crisis? Should we panic? To an extent, yes, because there are not many short-term solutions. Although a great deal can be done by recruiting language speakers from other countries, this will not provide all the future teachers or the specialist linguists the country needs.
On the other hand there are many positive factors which can provide the framework for a solution. The changes in public attitudes suggested by the NOP survey are also reflected in growing media interest in foreign languages. Already the agenda has moved on and the question we now ask is not "why should we learn languages" so much as "why are we not better linguists?" Even more encouraging is a detectable change in the attitudes of young people.
A survey of trainees at the BMW Group's UK operations showed that 70 per cent thought that it was "quite" or "very" important for their future working life to be able to speak a foreign language.
If such long-term motivation to learn languages does exist, then the problems may be more structural - our examination systems and curriculum may be discouraging take-up of what is perceived as a "difficult" subject. Current proposals to broaden the post-16 curriculum (Curriculum 2000) may then be of particular importance for languages.
The challenge for teachers will be that of building on what are favourable conditions for languages, to encourage learners to see the point in the short term as well as for an undetermined future.
The boy quoted at the beginning did go on to say that learning a foreign language is "good for your mind though. It's like a sport where you don't have to move".
Perhaps there is a clue there to what we should be doing to interest more pupils.
Lid King is director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and ResearchTel: 020 7379 5102E-mail: email@example.com