There is no doubt that the uptake of modern languages is declining. But if that is the disease, what is its cause? And can it be treated?
Wolfgang Mossinger, the German consul general in Scotland, puts forward the following diagnosis: that the study of modern languages is declining in Scottish schools because:
- they are not compulsory;
- they are perceived as difficult;
- they are no longer a requirement for entry to university;
- English dominates globally;
- some parents exposed to theoretical and boring lessons are prejudiced against them; and
- lack of political will.
Language teachers need to adopt "relevance" as the key principle or find themselves out of work, says Eddie Morrison, head of John Ogilvie High in South Lanarkshire. His school was last year crowned Spanish School of the Year by the Spanish Embassy.
It is no longer enough to take "the syrup-of-figs approach" and tell youngsters to learn a language because it is good for them, he says.
He believes the future of the subject will be ensured through enthusiastic teachers - "if it matters to the teacher, it is more likely to matter to pupils" - and a culture within the school that screams that languages are important.
There also has to be a commitment to languages from the Scottish Government. The teaching of languages in primary schools has to be developed and resourced properly, he says. Languages to at least National 5 (Standard grade CreditIntermediate 2) level should be an entrance requirement for primary teaching, in the same way that they have to have attained maths, he believes.
Curriculum for Excellence and its focus on excellent pedagogy will play a major role in turning pupils back on to language learning, predicts Sarah Breslin, director of SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages at Strathclyde University.
Classroom teachers, however, must be supported by senior management in school and by their local authorities.
She cites many examples of good practice but, even there, they were not without problems.
Last year, Alison Low, a teacher at Monifieth High in Angus, won the German Embassy's German Teacher Award - but in August, the school will stop offering the language to its new S1 cohort.
According to headteacher Richard Coton, pupils are generally well motivated in the junior school to study languages but the misperception that "English is a universal passport" means uptake in the senior school is weaker. By switching to French-only in S1-3 the school hopes to create more viable class sizes for languages in S4-6.
Bishopbriggs Academy in East Dunbartonshire was selected in 2008 as one of the 1,000 schools across the world to enter into a partnership with the German government to promote the German language.
The council, however, reneged on its end of the deal when it scrapped foreign language assistants.
Nevertheless, the "Schools - Partners for the Future" initiative has given Bishopbriggs the opportunity to send staff and pupils to Germany for intensive language courses lasting several weeks and a steady stream of native German speakers, from scientists to musicians, has visited the school.
Depute head Moira Carbery says: "The partnership has resulted in more kids wanting to take German at Higher, better results and more going on to study languages at university."
At John Ogilvie High, staff try to make languages more relevant by focusing on Spanish, not French, in early secondary and by linking with a school in Vila-real.
Spanish is the only language that is growing in popularity in Scottish schools, with entries at Higher almost doubling in the decade from 2000 to 2010.
To date, more than 400 pupils on John Ogilvie's current roll of 920 have had a direct personal link with Spain and the Spanish people in the region of Valencia through a trip in S1, an exchange open to pupils from S3, and Spanish social networking site Tuente, says Mr Morrison.
"They love to learn languages because it brings them closer to their pals," he adds.
Spanish is perceived as more relevant by pupils because they are more likely to have visited Spain, says Dan Tierney, a reader in language education at Strathclyde University. He also argues that Scottish pupils get their tongues round Spanish words more easily.
Other languages have also crept onto the Scottish curriculum, with changes in government policy. For the first time ever last year, Scottish pupils sat Highers in Mandarin (27 simplified, three traditional) and Cantonese (three), but numbers were small. Cash-strapped schools have not recruited Mandarin teachers in any number, leaving new teachers to seek jobs down south.
Other languages, however, are on their way out. By 2015 the Scottish Qualifications Authority plans to phase out Russian (25 Higher entries in 2010).
If Curriculum for Excellence is expected to turn pupils back on to languages, the new baccalaureate is already showing signs of doing so, giving Hannah Doughty, editor of the Scottish Languages Review, grounds for optimism. Just 13 schools expressed an interest in offering the qualification last year, but this year the number of schools seeking to offer it rose to 37.
THE PICTURE ACROSS EUROPE
How popular are languages in the rest of the EU?
- 56 per cent of EU citizens are able to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue; approximately one in 10 can have a conversation in three languages.
- The most multilingual EU citizens are the Luxembourgers, where 99 per cent of people know at least one other foreign language.
- But 44 per cent of Europeans say they speak only their mother tongue.
- Only six EU states had a majority of monolinguists in 2006, including Ireland (66 per cent), the United Kingdom (62 per cent), Italy (59 per cent), Hungary (58 per cent), Portugal (58 per cent) and Spain (56 per cent).
- In 2007, two or more foreign languages were studied by upper secondary pupils in the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland.
- Countries with the largest share of students studying one foreign language were Greece (92 per cent in 2006), Italy (74 per cent), Ireland (73 per cent), Spain (68 per cent), Malta (60 per cent) and Hungary (57 per cent).
- More than half of students in upper secondary in the United Kingdom did not study any foreign language, followed by Ireland (19 per cent).
- English is the most studied foreign language in upper secondary education in Europe.
Source: Eurobarometer, Europeans and their Languages, February 2006 and Eurostat, The Adult Education Survey, 2007.