Lessons learnt in Croatia
He was speaking at the first meeting of the education minister's languages action group where he and fellow researchers from the Scottish Council for Research in Education unveiled the results of their investigation into the decline in modern languages in the upper secondary school (TESS last week).
Professor Johnstone, while cautious about transferring lessons from one country to another, said evidence from Croatia suggested eight was the best age at which to start learning another language - "if the conditions are right. '' One of the big issues for Scotland was the supply of teachers.
Grammar was also strongly embedded in native language teaching in Croatia and this easily transferred to learning a second language.
He said the immersion approach used in Gaelic-medium schools, which Professor Johnstone is also investigating for the Scottish Office, showed the advantages of early learning.
But he warned that there were crucial differences - Gaelic-medium teaching had community backing, a particular cultural context, parental involvement, and teachers with a very high level of native speaker fluency.
Kathy Fairweather, HM chief inspector, wondered whether an even earlier start to language learning, perhaps even pre-school, would be better. She acknowledged that Primary 6 to Secondary 2 is the ``worst possible time'' to start, although it is the basis of the Scottish Office's modern languages in the primary school project (MLPS).
The recent HMI report on modern languages came under fire from Michael O'Neill, president of the Association of Directors of Education, for heaping blame on teachers rather than on the failures of policy which were outwith the control of teachers.
Mr O'Neill, North Lanarkshire director, said there was a lack of coherence in the 5-14 guidelines, confusing advice on diversification into a number of languages, and a "structural fault" between Standard grade and Higher - "all faults of policy."
John Mulgrew, the East Ayrshire director who chairs the action group, said there was a policy issue about how free education authorities should be to drive forward foreign language learning.
Isobel MacGregor, the inspector responsible for the modern languages report, signalled that the action group would be expected to address signficant issues such as the content of courses, which has been criticised as inappropriate for many pupils.
Primary schools also needed to understand more clearly that "modern languages is a serious experience for their pupils, not an optional extra," she added.
Ms MacGregor echoed the findings of the Stirling University SCRE study that parents and pupils had unrealistic expectations of the level of competence they should have acquired at Standard grade - not helped, she added, by the "learn Portuguese in 24 hours'' syndrome.
The researchers were challenged, however, over their key finding that a major reason for students dropping languages after Standard grade was a lack of motivation because they could see no "material gain'' either to help them into university or into a job.
Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, said he was puzzled by this since students were also unlikely to see a material gain from taking Higher history or physics.
"They choose these subjects either because they need Highers and these are as acceptable as any, or because they are good at these subjects,'' he said.
Joanna McPake, one of the SCRE researchers, suggested pupils do choose subjects on career grounds if they know what they want to do. If they have no clear plans, they tend to opt for the sciences rather than languages.
But Mr Tuck said entry requirements for 75 per cent of degree courses in Scotland, English aside, are not subject-specific. "There are subject choices being made which are not dependent on the utility value of the subject, '' he said.
Ms MacGregor said she would also expect the action group to clarify why learning a language was important - the "educational versus functional reasons. "
Mr Mulgrew, who announced that the action group would be setting up a web site, promised the group would tackle the "big picture," including the contribution that modern languages can make to local economic regeneration as well as pronouncing on purely educational matters.