To what extent can the teaching of languages, particularly to younger children, help combat racism and xenophobia? As "Fortress Europe" begins systematically to exclude foreigners the relevance of the Oxymoron Project, funded by Socrates, the European education co-operation agency, has grown.
The project brings together teachers, teacher educators and researchers concerned with primary school language teaching in Spain, Italy, Greece and England to exchange ideas about good practice. The particular interest of the English collaborators, led by Dr Tony Green of London's Institute of Education, is to assess the possibility that language teaching at an early age might combat prejudice.
Dr Green emphasises that this is not likely to be a simple process. Traditional language teaching is concerned with transmitting knowledge about language. To use language teaching as a means to develop inter-cultural tolerance implies great sensitivity to cultural similarities and awareness that difference and variety are part of the human condition and not a threat.
The researchers have found among parents and teachers in all the countries involved in the project an appreciation of the potential of foreign language teaching to increase tolerance. But they have found much less professional confidence about how it might be done.
The issue, Dr Green concludes, is not just about providing knowledge but about changing attitudes. The relationship between social contact and tolerance is not a simple one and recent history shows that the best liberal policies for building trust and tolerance can be instantly negated by random confrontation and violence.
Policy-makers and teachers find the question of how to change attitudes the least understood and most difficult aspect of their work. Even so, he argues, there is evidence that to start the process young can only be a good thing. Projects such as Oxymoron can discover what works best at school level.
"Identity and interculturality: reflections on early teaching of foreign language" by Anthony Green