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Primaries Must Break The Language Barrier PDF

alt 16 December 2008

When it comes to learning foreign languages, the UK is worryingly out of step with the rest of Europe, says Mike Baker

Mike BakerTravelling with the herd is not always desirable. But when it comes to learning foreign languages, the UK is worryingly out of step with the rest of Europe. We have long been the language-learning dunces, but now we are slipping further behind. Only someone with the worst case of Podsnappery could be complacent about that.  

 Earlier this month, the annual survey from the National Centre for Languages showed that foreign languages remain compulsory for 14- to 16-year-olds in just 22% of maintained schools. Worse still, just 45% of schools meet the government's minimum benchmark for half of all year 10 pupils to be learning a foreign language. The only good news was that the rate of decline in language learning has levelled off.

But a new study shows that while we are, at best, getting no worse at language learning, other European countries are starting younger and continuing for longer. Key Data in Teaching Languages at School, 2008, published by the Eurydice Unit, highlights two trends: a move towards earlier compulsory provision of languages in schools and a growing proportion of pupils learning more than one language. Between 1984 and 2007, 10 countries lowered the age at which languages become compulsory for all pupils. In Spain, from this year, languages start at age three.

In England, the Rose review, which delivered its interim report last week, is charged with suggesting how to introduce compulsory foreign languages at key stage 2. It highlighted one problem: the nature of language teaching before the age of 11 is so varied that there is little continuity for children as they move on to secondary education. So Rose has recommended that no more than two foreign languages should be taught in any primary school and that, "as far as possible", those languages should be the ones that those pupils will take at key stage 3.

But compulsory primary language teaching will not start until 2011, by which time we will have fallen even further behind. Nor will it be in time to save the UK from deep embarrassment when the first EU-wide "linguistic competence indicator" is published in 2012. This will, inevitably, produce football-style league tables, with the UK in the relegation zone.

The key measure will be the language competence of 15- to 16-year-olds across two foreign languages. Most EU countries already require at least two foreign languages to be taught for at least one year in secondary education. In the UK, we struggle with one.

Of course, some will argue there is no need to learn a foreign language when the rest of the world is increasingly learning English - in 13 European countries pupils are now required to learn English during compulsory education. But while this may be an explanation for our poor record at learning languages, it is hardly an excuse. The lack of foreign language skills will be a limitation to employment possibilities, especially in an increasingly global economy.

And this applies at all levels of jobs. How many British builders or waiters could, as so many eastern Europeans have done, travel to work elsewhere in Europe if our economic recession continues? And, of course, the ability to speak foreign languages brings non-economic benefits too, whether it is access to other cultures or just more fulfilling travel experiences.

It is tough to place all the burden of improving language learning on schools. There are other ways. Television companies might have one night a week showing only foreign language programmes. But somehow I cannot see that happening. We might also look to employers or adult education to help. But it is much harder to learn a language as an adult than as a child.

So, it has to be down to schools. And, with so many other pressures on the timetable, it probably has to be compulsory. So, bring forward compulsion in primary and, once there is a firmer base there, let's look again at making languages compulsory to 16.