Herr Thurmann, head of curriculum development at the German ministry of education, told the conference that bilingual education was a major area of innovation in the language curriculum which could be implemented relatively cheaply and to great effect.
"Bilingual learning is a bargain and it has the effect of broadening and deepening the competence of the learner," he said.
Apart from Luxembourg, which has a truly trilingual system, most European countries only offer bilingual education to a minority of pupils. "The only reason that it hasn't made a bigger impact is because of a shortage of teachers with bilingual qualifications." In Germany, bilingual programmes are part of the curriculum in around 250 schools and some have been teaching subjects such as geography, economics and maths in another language for 20 years.
"We officially support and encourage schools to do this but we discovered a lot of professional problems at first. A lot of teachers didn't feel up to it and thought they weren't competent in the language as well as their subject. But when it came to realising such a programme a lot of those who were diffident really coped."
Such problems could be overcome by team teaching or teacher exchange programmes with other countries, he said. The programmes have proved popular with parents and pupils alike (research showed great learner satisfaction and achievement without any serious loss of comprehension in the target subject) and bilingualism was now part of teacher training in two German universities.
"It makes no sense teaching English, German or French for six or seven years without getting beyond the stage of ordering a cup of coffee," he said.