Fortunately, there is no international league table by which the skill of young Scots at asking for moules marinieres is pitted against foreigners' competence in whistling up pie and chips. It is easier to compare performance in mathematics and science, and we know how poorly our youngsters do alongside those from Pacific Rim countries. If European language tables were drawn up, it is not just the Dutch and Danes who would outshine us. Even young citizens of Latin countries would prove more adept at English than we do at their languages.
Of course they must learn English because of its international status, that is, because Americans speak it. In many cases continental Europeans start English very young and have to continue with it until they leave school. In Scotland, though not south of the border, primary exposure to a European language is supposed to be built into the curriculum. Pupils are meant to continue with a language until 16. Old-fashioned emphasis on grammatical correctness has given way to communicative skills. Meeting French coevals, our young secondary pupils can launch into a conversation starting "j'aime", followed by the pop group of the moment. At which point they become stuck.
In quick succession last week Glasgow's education committee and Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, condemned the state of school languages. Hardly anyone now continues to Higher grade, which was not the case 20 years ago. Does it matter? If the aim is to develop useful competence, it certainly does since no one can claim that Standard grade brings fluency or the ability, say, to read a foreign newspaper. In other words, our pupils are being given a language taster, but for other than a small minority, that is all.
Young Scots are not anti-European. They envy foreign visitors' ability to converse in English. So why do they stop their own studies? Why is it a myth to say that the most talented young people have a wide-ranging batch of five Highers when the most common combinations include English as the sole humanities component, with the rest of their subjects being mathematical and scientific? Only one in eight pupils studies a modern language to Higher grade.
The Government is trying to find out the reasons. One must be the belief among pupils that languages are harder than other subjects. They are right in that the jump from Standard grade to Higher is enormous, encompassing not just a vastly increased vocabulary but also writing competence, which tests command of grammar, spelling and colloquial expressions. If a whole new discipline has to be learnt in nine months after Standard grade, it is little wonder that all but the dedicated are deterred.
The Higher Still reforms have still time to consider the relationship between fourth year and fifth. Lower down the secondary, the emphasis on repetitive communication of a few simple thoughts needs to be looked at: grammar as well as vocabulary is required to turn one message into another. Then there is the problem of primary school languages. Who will admit that in primary 6 and primary 7 there is more tokenism than useful tasting?