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New languages supremo must persuade reluctant Brits to speak something other than English. Helen Ward reports

LID King, new national director for languages, is used to challenges - after all, he tried to learn Welsh.

His appointment by the Department for Education and Skills to lead the drive to persuade the notoriously monolingual British to learn a language was announced in the same week as a pound;4.6 million project to introduce languages into primaries.

The new languages supremo is currently director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. He said: "I'm always much more of an optimist about the linguistic capabilities of the British than some people are.

"England is already a multilingual country and we cannot help but live in a multilingual world."

The Government wants all pupils aged seven to 11 to have the opportunity to learn a language by 2010.

Dr King said his priorities would include rapid progress on the introduction of languages in primaries and retaining students' interest at 14 when they will soon have the chance to drop the subject.

He can speak French, Greek and Italian, but admits his "pathetic attempt" to learn Welsh during the European Year of Languages in 2001 did not get far.

(Lid is short for the Welsh name, Elidir. His grandmother was a native Welsh speaker, but he was brought up in England.) Dr King takes up his new post at the DfES in September on secondment for three years. His budget will rise to pound;10m a year by 200506.

At present around one in five primaries is believed to teach languages either during class time or in an after-school club. But, while some provide timetabled lessons for all children aged five to 11: others do no languages at all.

The new project aims to introduce languages into primaries in 19 local education authorities from September. Each of the pathfinder authorities will get up to pound;200,000 per year for two years.

The areas trialling language learning are: Barking and Dagenham, Birmingham, Brighton amp; Hove, Bury, Coventry, East Riding of Yorkshire, Enfield, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hampshire, Kent, Knowsley, Liverpool, Norfolk, North Tyneside, Nottinghamshire, Oldham, Richmond-upon-Thames, Sheffield and Lancashire.

Liverpool already has one of the most extensive primary language projects in the country.

Andrew Seber, Hampshire chief education officer, said: "We want to see what works in our primary schools and how languages can be integrated into the curriculum. The important thing is to make it enjoyable."

Liz Kelly, who heads Liverpool's language programme, said of Dr King's appointment: "I cannot think of anyone better than Lid. He knows most about the national picture and is passionate about languages."

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