ALAN Moys, secretary of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, likes to quote a passage in PG Wodehouse's The Luck of the Bodkins that is in some respects very dated but still horribly apposite. "Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French."
However, it remains to be seen whether the Nuffield report will help to ease our national embarrassment. Its authors are unrealistic in asking that all university applicants sit a foreign language competency test but they are right to call for more language learning in junior schools, specialist primary schools, and improved language teaching in secondaries.
But the Nuffield group is hardly the first august body to point out what a monoglot lot we are. In 1993, the National Commission on Education urged that modern foreign languages should become part of the junior core curriculum. "It is, however, impossible to make the teaching of a second language compulsory at present because of the shortage of suitably qualified teachers," the Commission acknowledged. <> Well, plus ca change. Last week The TES carried 240 adverts for secondary MFL teachers. There is also a huge shortage of primary language specialists that will be expensive to rectify. (The Scots spent pound;16 million on a crash programme for 3,750 primary teachers but still failed to cover all schools.) And as we report on page 11, authorities such as Richmond are curtailing foreign language programmes because of the drive to raise maths and literacy standards.
It is also true that many secondary pupils are turned off languages by uninspired teaching and the perceived difficulty of A-level courses. But the education service must not be asked to shoulder all the blame for our inability to understand other languages and (as a result) cultures. As a new report from the Scottish Council for Research in Education suggests, employers are also culpable. They say that languages are important but when asked to prioritise employees' skills, a second language comes way down the list. Furthermore, an extra language usually does little for a young person's earning potential.
Unless that changes we will continue wandering around Europe with our phrase books.