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A zest for languages

CHILDREN like learning languages, and the younger they are the more enthusiastic. The need is to make languages relevant to older pupils for whom the fun has, to a greater or lesser extent, been supplanted by the need to buckle down to learning vocabulary and grammar, without which no acceptable level of competence will be attained. The languages report published this week (page four) says that in 500 hours students, regardless of aptitude, will have sufficient confidence and "know-how" to put their language to use "for purposes they see as beneficial".

John Mulgrew's action group accepts that the economic, social and personal arguments for learning a language are not sufficient reason for persevering with a decade-old strategy by which instruction is built into the curriculum of most 10 to 16-year-olds. Since pupil interest declines with age, another tack is needed. Better teaching in primary and more use of information technology to make communication "live" and immediate, partly through links with school abroad, are among the aims which lead to practical recommendations.

Local authorities are responsible for most of the innovations that have recently revivified language learning. Not surprisingly from a group chaired by the president of the Association of Directors of Education, the strategy is to encourage schools and councils to come up with ways of fulfilling a limited number of national targets, including the basic 500 hours.

Local circumstances, such as a pool of native speakers of a particular language to supplement trained teachers, should dictate the language chosen: that could help with intensive tuition or immersion, which is shown to be among the best ways of learning. The language should not be arbitrarily changed as learners move from primary to secondary, and it need not so often be French.

But giving extra weighting to German, Spanish or Italian (as the report advocates) will be as difficult as reordering voting strengths among the nations of an enlarged European Union.

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