The English start late and drop out early
Children in most UK schools start learning foreign languages later, study fewer of them, spend less time on them and can drop them earlier than in other European countries.
At secondary level for instance, only the UK and Ireland allow pupils staying on to 18 to opt out of foreign language study, usually at the age of 16. And in many countries, pupils have to study more than one foreign language. Nevertheless, in the past five years the number of entries at GCSE in modern languages has jumped by more than a third from 418,000 to an estimated 573, 000 last year.
French remains by far the most common language taught in English schools. But it is not the most useful language for industry: German gives access not only to Germany but also to the emerging Eastern bloc countries, and Spanish opens doors to the growing Latin American market.
Eight years ago, the then Department of Education and Science started a programme, co-ordinated by CILT, to break the stranglehold of French. It launched a government-funded project, initially in 10 local authorities, to diversify the first foreign language taught in their secondary schools.
This had marked success: between 1990 and 1995 GCSE entries for German rose by more than half and for Spanish by nearly two-thirds. But the momentum appears to be fading and the question remains what quotas for each language should the country be aiming for.
Ministers appear to have no view on the spread of languages British children should study. The outspoken trade minister, Richard Needham, asked last summer why so many children learned French rather than the more useful - and easier - Spanish. But Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, who studied French and German and later taught French, was understood to be "surprised" by his remarks.
The Department for Trade and Industry runs the National Languages for Exports awards and also promotes initiatives to help companies develop their linguistic expertise. But a spokeswoman said there was no pressure at ministerial level to go into any particular language.
"What companies should do is look at their key markets and develop the language skills they need," she said. "The whole point is not necessarily to be fluent in the language but at least to make an effort. British companies should not assume foreign firms are fluent in English."
Other European countries also have one dominant foreign language but it is usually English, which is the most useful international business language.
In Spanish secondary schools nearly 90 per cent of pupils study English and 25 per cent study French as well from the age of 14. In France all study a second foreign language from the age of 13.