Tongue tie ups sought

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Much could be said about the failure by successive governments to create a viable modern languages policy. But now the reality is that language learning in schools is declining because pupils do not enjoy it and do not see much point in it (page 1). Language lessons are some of the worst taught in schools according to Ofsted and it is palpably untrue for most pupils that the effort involved in learning French will somehow pay off in employment.

Making languages compulsory for all seems not to have helped much. Now there is a real risk of an irreversible decline with insufficient numbers studying languages to sustain teaching for all in secondary, let alone extension into primary classrooms.

The languages strategy originally promised by the Government for next week has once again been postponed. When - or if - it does eventually appear, it needs to deal convincingly with both ends and means - demand as well as supply.

Why should British children learn a foreign language when the whole world is clamouring to master English? There are, of course, strong social and strategic reasons why we all should understand something of the language and lives of our European partners. If nothing else, it might improve behaviour on the international football terraces.

But in a market-driven education system personal interests (and league table performance) prevail rather than public interest or internationalist vision. English speakers do not have the motivation to learn that the language of pop, Hollywood and the Internet provides for the young French, German or Dutch. Even the prospect of fraternising with those young Continentals has been reduced by the decline of the family exchange. So one challenge now must be to find alternative travel, technological or cultural contacts to inspire reluctant young linguists.

On the supply side the strategy must extend down into primary with a co-ordinated and manageable policy. This new priority will require both curriculum space and training for staff. It is a daunting proposition but a decade ago the same was true of science - now one of the strengths of primary schools.

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