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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 July 2005, 02:27 GMT 03:27 UK
Will the Olympics help languages?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
What will the London Olympics 2012 mean for education?

Clearly it should encourage sport in schools but perhaps it could also provide a desperately needed boost to improve our dreadful international record in learning foreign languages?

The arrival of competitors and spectators from all over the world in an area of London that already has scores of community languages could just shake us out of the complacent view that all anyone needs is English.

There are obvious opportunities for schools to link language learning to Olympic themes.

Hitting the pocket

Schools could "adopt" a competitor or a national team. Languages could become "cool".

They need to. This week a report from CILT, the national languages centre, showed the extent to which our poor competence at foreign languages hits us in the pocket as much as it limits us culturally.

The report, Talking World Class, found the UK was last out of 28 countries for its people's ability to speak another language. It linked this languages "gap" with the trade gap.

It found that while the UK exports more than it imports when trading with English-speaking countries, that trade gap is reversed with non-English speaking states.

Imports and exports

It also found that the UK sells proportionately more to countries where English is widely spoken (The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries) than to those where English is spoken less often.

In short, languages are a barrier to successful marketing and selling - hardly surprising when a survey found that 80% of British export managers could not deal competently in even one other language.

The national curriculum has been slimmed down so there should, in theory, be more time for languages at secondary school
Mike Baker

There is an employment gap for individuals too. While only one in three British graduates feel confident enough to work abroad, in other European countries it is two out of three.

So what is being done to close this languages gap? The government's National Languages Strategy for England set the aim of foreign language lessons for every eight to 11-year-old in primary schools by the end of the decade.

Yet recent evidence suggest that even this relatively modest target could prove too much.

Research published last September shows that fewer than half (44%) of English primary schools currently offer a foreign language. This falls to just 35% of schools that offer languages during curriculum time rather than in after-hours clubs.

The extremely low base from which we are starting is revealed by the stark statistic that just 3% of schools give all pupils aged eight to 11 a weekly languages lesson of at least 20 minutes.

Teenage decline

There is scarcely better news in secondary schools. Since last year, languages are no longer compulsory after the age of 14. Already there are signs that growing numbers of schools and students are taking advantage of this to drop languages.

Last year, CILT found that less than one-third of state secondary schools required pupils to continue with a language to 16.

Another more recent survey suggests that some schools are also reducing language teaching for 11 to 14-year-olds.

So it is a rather gloomy picture. However - as well as the Olympics - there are some changes that have the potential to help boost language learning.

From this September primary schools will be under a legal obligation to provide non-teaching time to all teachers.

This poses a major staffing challenge for schools but one answer would be to employ language instructors to take classes, releasing the class teacher for their planning and preparation time.

Adult learning

Also from this autumn, schools will be required to teach "enterprise education". Although primarily about developing business-oriented skills, this could be broadened to include business language skills.

The national curriculum has been slimmed down so there should, in theory, be more time for languages at secondary school.

But much will depend on the extent to which languages are seen as part of the growing vocational curriculum.

Meanwhile, for those of us who left school with limited or non-existent language skills, there is still time to do something.

Around 200,000 adults currently take language courses provided by adult education services.

But even here there is cause for concern: as government funding focuses on training for 16 to 19-year-olds, colleges are now warning that adult education classes will be cut. These will include language classes.

Overall the audit of Britain's language skills is pretty grim. We can only hope that a wave of internationalism, stoked by preparations for the 2012 Olympics, will change things for the better.

Now that would be an Olympic legacy worth having.

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