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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 December 2005, 05:49 GMT
Lessons learnt from languages
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
There are just 173 days, and counting, to the soccer World Cup in Germany. More than 100,000 England fans are planning to travel there in June.

But will any more than a tiny handful be able to speak even a few words of German? I very much doubt it.

I am one of the lucky ones with tickets (to follow Paraguay not England - it's complicated, don't ask) and I have to confess I am ashamed of my inability to say anything more than "Guten Tag" in German.

This week the outgoing German ambassador to London lamented the failure of the British to learn German, or indeed any other foreign language.

He said the British needed to learn that languages are "not just an ornamental necessity but vital to the real interests of this country".

One can understand his frustration when the statistics show that only just over 5,000 English students took A-level German last year.

In a small, but worthy, attempt to improve things, the British embassy in Germany has just launched a website to offer translations into German of key soccer phrases such as "sick as a parrot", "on me head mate", and "he nutmegged 'im".

More significant, however, was the announcement by the Department for Education that from next year all secondary schools in England will have to set a target for the number of pupils who are studying a foreign language up to GCSE level.

language class
The government is encouraging modern languages in primary schools

There will be a minimum expectation of 50% of pupils in each school taking a language course that leads to a qualification at age 16.

Is this "expectation" too high or too low?

And is this, as the Conservatives claim, a case of the government being forced to "remedy a mistake" they made when, in 2004, they removed languages from the compulsory curriculum after the age of 14?

Since languages became optional, the numbers taking GCSE in a modern foreign language have fallen sharply.

In 2003, 73% of 15-year-olds did so. In 2004, that fell to 68% and provisional figures for 2005 show it has slumped to 58%.

Bearing in mind that the spread of students learning languages is far from even across schools - with nearly 100% in many independent, grammar and specialist language schools - that means there are many schools that will struggle to get up to the 50% target.


So was it a mistake to drop the compulsion to study a foreign language from the age of 11 to 16?

There are two views on this. The government justified its decision to end compulsion by arguing, in effect, that you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

Its rationalisation was that it was better to encourage more language learning in primary schools (although ministers held back from making it compulsory at this level) than to force reluctant 14-year-olds to persist with something they had already decided they did not like or could not do.

The opposing view is that learning languages is an economic and cultural necessity so we should, if needs be, require all pupils to do so.

This is, broadly, the view of the European Commission. In 2002, the Barcelona European Council recommended that at least two foreign languages should be taught from an early age.

In general, as a recent report from the European Commission has highlighted (Eurydice.org), our European neighbours have been increasing their language teaching, just as we have been reducing it.

In almost all of the other European countries, it is compulsory to begin learning a foreign language in primary schools. Often children start from a very young age and in many countries more than half of all pupils, of all ages, in primary school learn at least one foreign language.

The trend towards English has been particularly strong in central and eastern Europe

In lower secondary schools, the average number of foreign languages studied per pupil ranges between 2.2 and 0.8. Guess which is the 0.8? Yes, the UK.

However, the argument is not a simple one. Other indicators suggest that, in one rather selfish respect, it could be argued there is now less need for the British to speak another language. For the reality is that the rest of Europe is increasingly learning English.

The European Commission report shows that in the great majority of countries at least 90% of pupils learn English in secondary school. This dominance of English has been "tending to increase for some years".

In 13 countries it is compulsory to learn English. Yet even when pupils are given a free choice of other languages, 90% still opt for English.

The trend towards English has been particularly strong in central and eastern Europe. In these countries, German and French are now falling behind.

Job prospects

So, when football fans like myself turn up in Germany this June without any language skills, it may not matter because there will be plenty of Germans able to speak to us in English.

I am not proud of that and will try to learn some German. But, as anyone who has ever attempted to learn languages at evening classes can testify, it is much harder to learn a foreign language as an adult than as a child.

I did not particularly enjoy languages at school but I am glad I had to take at least one to the age of 16. I wish now it had been more.

More broadly, it is not just about the ability to get by when visiting a country on holiday, it is also about individual job prospects and about the success of companies, and economies, that trade internationally.

Perhaps we do sometimes need to be forced to do what we don't like and are not good at, although - in all honesty - I would not wish to be the teacher required to take committed monoglot 15-year-olds for French or German classes.

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15 Dec 05 |  Education
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