THERE ARE three challenges for modern languages - in the upper primary, where non-specialists have to be trained to deliver, at Standard grade, where some pupils struggle with their own language much less the compulsion to learn a foreigner's, and in the upper secondary, where languages are perceived as a difficult Higher option. The action group set up last year is not going to yield to the pessimists at any of these stages. Indeed by emphasising the written element at Standard grade, criticised for its exclusive emphasis on oral competence, the minister's advisers may appear unsympathetic to strugglers.
Yet giving in to the critics would be too easy an option when success in trading abroad and making tourists welcome here is partly dependent on language skills. Before anyone says that too many pupils are bound to fail, let us remember our European partners whose youngsters are no more intelligent but achieve admirable levels of fluency. Learning how, not asking whether has to be watchword, and it is one that the action group seems eager to adopt.
Some developments are obvious if costly. New primary teachers have to be trained in languages from the outset and not just through 27-day crash courses. A cadre of language specialists may have to be recruited to work in primaries as part teachers, part advisers.
In secondary school, early enthusiasm has to be retained. Some teachers have recorded remarkable results with fairly non-academic pupils. Their ideas should be shared. If the S3-S4 experience was better so would the take-up be for Higher. Or perhaps it is the painfully slow start in S1-S2 that makes for problems later.