No time to be lax with the lingo

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Two billion people will be learning English in 10 years' time. Most European countries make their children learn not one, but two languages at school. Global citizenship, here we come. But not in England.

An unwelcome (but not unpredictable) effect of removing the compulsion to learn languages at key stage 4 is that they are also creeping off the KS3 curriculum, leaving some pupils with the equivalent of just 10 minutes a day to master another tongue.

By changing the rules, the Government has given out the message that languages are not important: the plan to get kids started in French in primaries is years away, while a generation of teenagers gets the bare minimum, if that. Schools are deciding that pupils' time would be better spent on English or maths than French or Spanish, creating a trend that undermines ministers' promised equality of opportunity.

A new report by the Office for Standards in Education has found that a crucial factor in pupils' success in language GCSEs is the head's determination. Schools in disadvantaged areas can do very well in these subjects.

The shocking divide is between independent and state schools. Nothing helps language learning like a silver spoon in the mouth: 97 per cent of independent schools keep lessons compulsory until age 16, compared with a dwindling band of state secondaries - just one third last year.

The Government must review its language-teaching policy urgently. In the era of cheap flights, gap years and European working rules that have made Polish plumbers so popular abroad, being able to speak another language is a vital skill. The House of Lords has warned that British business risks being "seriously hampered" in the global marketplace because language skills are falling so far behind.

The international status of English is no excuse. Presuming that you can get by abroad in your mother tongue breeds the sort of insularity and arrogance that makes the English such unpopular tourists. Just ask weary residents of Talinn, the once-improbable destination of choice for stag weekends.

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