Warning over language complacency

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
EUROPE. Harvey McGavin reports on a Strasbourg conference that is the culmination of an eight-year project to encourage multilingualism. An eight-year project on language learning concluded last month with a call for policymakers and practitioners to devote extra effort to preparing young people for a multilingual Europe in the millennium.

The final conference of the Council of Europe's Language Learning for a New Europe, attended by more than 300 delegates from 45 countries, also heard a warning about complacency surrounding the pre-eminence of English.

"We need to make a further definitive step in language teaching across our continent," project director Dr John Trim told the conference, which he said was "potentially the most influential meeting of the European language teaching profession that we have known".

The Council of Europe had made a huge contribution to foreign language teaching with the publication of "threshold level" documents detailing basic competencies in 21 languages, and its work had influenced curriculum development in almost all member states, but much more needed to be done.

Future priorities should include teacher training, primary language learning, bilingual education, using new technologies and promoting educational links and exchanges.

The conference approved the further development of a common European framework document to enable "mutual recognition of language qualifications" and assist examining bodies and course designers as well as the piloting of a "European language portfolio" which would detail learners' formal and informal experiences of other languages and cultures.

Since the project was launched in the same week in 1989 that the Berlin Wall fell, Europe had changed radically, a fact demonstrated by the increase in countries taking part in the project from 25 when it began to 45 at its conclusion.

Domenico Lenarduzzi, the European Commission's director of education, told the conference that multilingualism would be a huge advantage in future job markets.

"This is not a mere wish but an absolute necessity. Without sufficient linguistic knowledge there will be no mobility, no dialogue and no understanding. The major challenge for Europe is to achieve this while respecting each other's diversity," he said.

He envisaged a system in which children would learn foreign languages from the age of three.

"Each citizen should be in a position to know two other languages. If young people do not have languages they will be confronted by discrimination. Many pupils are leaving the educational system without receiving sufficient language training. The time has come to rethink language learning. Whether we like it or not all our member states must make efforts to adapt their teaching."

Although the Council of Europe had done some "pioneering work" in the field of language learning, more people needed access to its publications, the council's deputy director of education, Maitland Stobart, warned. Negotiations with publishers, including Cambridge University Press, were already under way, but he added: "It is pointless if our publications stay in cellars in Strasbourg. We must make a concerted effort to improve the dissemination of our work.

"Our daily lives now have a European dimension and this must be true of our education system. Knowledge of foreign languages is going to be one of the key competencies all of us will need for living in the new Europe."

Although English remains easily the most popular foreign language taught in Europe - studied by 88 per cent of secondary pupils compared to 32 per cent who learned French and 18 per cent German - Dr Trim warned against complacency among British students.

"There are obvious practical advantages in speaking a language that a lot of other people speak," he said. "But there are dangers in thinking that because the rest of the world is learning to speak English that they don't need to know anything else - resentments can build up. If the British give the impression that 'We are prepared to talk to you but only on our terms', that doesn't make friends.

"Communication skills and understanding in the mother tongue and other languages are worth more curriculum space than they are given - there isn't another country here that doesn't have a compulsory foreign language element in the 16 to 18 age group."

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