Proceed with caution
Opening a two-day conference on modern foreign languages in the primary curriculum on Monday, Dr Nicholas Tate hinted that the "favoured place" of French in the curriculum could be reconsidered but insisted that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority had no fixed views on the matter.
"Spanish, after all, is spoken by far more people worldwide," he said, adding: "SCAA has no views on the future role of modern foreign languages in the primary school. At the moment we approach the issues with an entirely open mind."
The unique position of English as the global language was both a blessing and a curse, he said, giving us a natural advantage in international communications and business but also making us lazy when it came to learning other languages. "There is a tremendous motivation for people around the world to learn English - they know they need it to get on," he commented. "We can do things to stimulate that sense but the reality is that we don't need another language to get on."
The money needed to introduce modern languages at primary level might be better spent on improving literacy or standards in maths teaching. "There is a powerful case for including modern foreign languages in the curriculum if you could prove that there were long-term advantages in doing it and it didn't distract from other subjects."
Beate Poole, a modern languages lecturer and teacher trainer at the University of London's Institute of Education, who is researching into the effects of primary language learning, urged caution before embarking on a multilingual crusade. She said the process of a child learning its first language in the real world and a second in the classroom were very different processes which should not necessarily begin at the same age.
"I think it is time we buried the belief that 'young is best' for language learning in the classroom once and for all. All the available data suggests that young children are not great achievers within the constraints of the classroom." It was wrong to assume that starting young would lead to better results later on.
Proper instruction in a second language shouldn't begin before the child has mastered the basics of its mother tongue, probably around the age of 9 or 10, she said. But if children's natural enthusiasm, empathy and positive attitudes could be encouraged and sustained while learning a new language, then the early learning would be a positive experience. "But enjoyment must not become a substitute for learning," she said. "A bit of this and a bit of that tends to result in random learning."
She said good practice in other countries could not easily be transferred to Britain, since children in non-anglophone countries were surrounded by English speaking popular culture in films, music and television.
But if English language teachers and advisers want to look for a similar model they need only look northwards to Scotland, where second language learning is now an established part of the primary curriculum.
Isobel McGregor, HMI inspector for languages north of the border, said the scheme had been a qualified success. Building on a pilot started in 1989, 10 and 11-year-old children in all 2,400 primary schools were now learning a foreign language. "One of the myths is that we have got it cracked and it's all marvellous, the other is that it's all fallen apart. The real answer is somewhere in between the two," she said.
Initial doubts about the ability of staff to cope with the extra demands have largely been quashed. Teachers were retrained on month-long crash courses and teacher training now contains a language component to bring newly qualified staff up to speed. "They have enough competence in enough contexts to deliver the foreign language."
An interactive CD produced by the education department helps teachers brush up their language skills. Positive attitudes and co-operation between schools were crucial to the eventual success of the initiative, she said.