The Association for Language Learning has thrown down the gauntlet to the new government by announcing a 10-point strategy to equip pupils with linguistic skills to match those of our European neighbours.
With falling teacher recruitment (only 1,748 modern languages teachers have been taken on this year out of a target of 2,250) and fewer people training as modern language teachers (down from 1,940 in 1994-5 to 1,890 this year) the time is ripe for a root and branch rethink of the way we learn languages and train its teachers, claims ALL general secretary Christine Wilding.
The ALL's 10-point plan calls for:
-leadership from the top - more public demonstrations from politicians and business people that languages really matter
- a cash commitment to language and cultural policies
- a coherent national strategy document for lifelong language learning
- restructuring of further education funding so leisure and vocational language courses are financed equally
- a long-term strategy to introduce at least one foreign language at primary level
- action to halt the decline in the number of post-16 language students
- recognition of the many languages spoken in the United Kingdom by encouraging bilingual children to gain academic success in their mother tongue as well as English
- a rise in teacher supply and recruitment
- more professional support and in-service training for language teachers
- increased use of computers.
With so many issues competing for attention, Ms Wilding is urging the Government to carry out a thorough assessment of the state of language teaching in our schools and act on its findings.
With the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and the Teacher Training Agency, the ALL is holding a one-day invited conference on July 14 to thrash out the problems facing modern languages.
Although early development of language skills is seen as a possible solution to concerns over language competency, it is not a cure-all, warns Ms Wilding. "The first step is to monitor and evaluate existing initiatives in primary schools and, if they are successful, to extend them."
The Labour Party's election manifesto made no mention of establishing languages in primary schools, despite mounting pressure from parents and headteachers. But Ms Wilding says ministers should investigate the possibility. "We hope the Government is considering introducing languages in primary schools because there is strong evidence that a foreign language is beneficial to primary schoolchildren, and it is popular with parents. The Government says education is its priority, and when something is a priority resources can usually be found for it."
The priority for ALL members, according to a recent survey, is computers and training. In a subject increasingly reliant on interactive media, a well-equipped language lab in every school would be a boon to retention rates.
The diversity of modern languages - there are 19 in the national curriculum - should be respected, with pupils studying more than one language where possible. Teaching more French - the traditional starter language in primary school - could merely lead to an even greater dominance of French at secondary level.
We should instead be looking at the "life cycle of a language teacher", from school, through university and training and returning to school as a teacher, Ms Wilding says. At each phase some people are lost to languages. Only by conserving and nurturing budding linguists can we reverse the trend and boost the pool of potential teachers.
"We must build up quality and competence in foreign languages in the UK. We need to learn foreign languages - and not only to communicate. There is a cultural dimension to learning tolerance and other ways of life."
David Sword, chairman of the National Association of Language Advisors, agrees. He stresses the need for continuity between primary and secondary sectors. "There's a lot of ad hoc work going on in primary schools. But not all of that feeds into secondaries. All children must have the opportunity to study a language at primary level. But it's a massive undertaking and needs proper funding. We need a review of the whole subject and a proper strategy set in place for language teaching and learning. The system now is incoherent and inconsistent."
Mr Sword wants to see increased flexibility in teacher training. "The system is so heavily school-based that it can train people only in what is happening in schools. The Teacher Training Agency needs to look at how it can support innovation in education through initial training."
The TTA's Jane Benham laments the shortfall of teachers but acknowledges that in the current climate, schools face a battle to attract the best language graduates ahead of more lucrative offers from industry.
She says: "Schools need dual linguists who are capable of delivering the target curriculum in both languages. But education is competing with industry for those people, and is just not competitive enough. They will have probably been studying for four years and the idea of doing another year to get a PGCE, and a fifth year of student debt is not very happy prospect.
"Everybody says primary is the answer to everything. But we haven't even got enough teachers from 11-16. Having a compulsory element at primary level would not necessarily lead to more people studying languages later in school."
The nub of the problem, and perhaps the hardest part to overcome, is the pre-eminence of English in the world, mixed with good old-fashioned complacency. "We need a change of attitude to languages - to stop believing everybody speaks English and if we speak it loud enough they'll understand us. It isn't like that," she says.