Studying a language could become compulsory for all primary school pupils in England, following a review by government adviser Lord Dearing.
Lord Dearing said languages should be "embedded" in the primary curriculum.
It is estimated 60% of primary schools, with government encouragement, already teach languages to some extent.
Lord Dearing's interim report on the decline in language study is against a return to compulsory language studies at GCSE level in secondary schools.
Until two years ago, it had been compulsory for pupils in England to study a modern language up to age 16, but now pupils can stop at 14.
In 2001, 78% of pupils took a language at GCSE, compared to 51% this year, government figures showed.
Amid widespread concern at the trend, the government asked Lord Dearing to investigate.
He sought the views of secondary school students, who told him languages were difficult, boring and they "could not see the point".
Announcing his interim findings he said: "For languages: the earlier the better.
"We like the way they are being taught in primaries as they are introduced through cross-curricular work, and the way they draw on the young children's sense of fun.
"We propose that they should be embedded in the primary curriculum at the next review."
Other key findings:
Lord Dearing said a return to compulsory languages for 14 to 16-year-olds, though not the "preferred" route, "should be used if it proves to be needed".
- GCSE languages specification should be revised to make it more relevant and engaging for young people
- oral part of the GCSE should perhaps be assessed by teachers rather than a one-off exam
- informal classroom assessment at the end of Key Stage 2 (age 11) and 3 (14)
- schools should be given more freedoms to offer languages alongside major EU languages
- more professional development for language teachers.
His reasons for not advocating a return to compulsion at GCSE level include a possible shortage of teachers, the fact that some students are still struggling with maths and English, and an element of compulsion in the new diplomas from 2008.
Education Secretary Alan Johnson, who commissioned the review, said: "The younger they start learning a language the easier it can become, which is why we want every Key Stage 2 pupil in the country to have the opportunity to study a foreign language by 2010."
He added: "We must also get major employer organisations involved to see what more they can do to promote the value of languages skills for business.
"Young people need to be aware that languages can make you attractive to employers - and more employable."
The 2012 Olympics presented another opportunity.
French nativity play
At Rothwell CE Primary School in West Yorkshire, French has been part of the curriculum for about three years, and this Christmas pupils are performing a bilingual nativity play.
Head teacher Martin Skinner said he did not see compulsory languages as a problem for his school, but he hoped tests would not be brought in.
"That would lose a lot of the fun and would put pressure on schools.
"I think some primary schools may see their curriculum is already squeezed, they have pressure from Sats [national curriculum tests] and I am not sure how many modern language graduates go into teaching now."
Lord Dearing's provisional proposals will be subject to consultation with heads, teachers and others before he makes his final recommendations next February.
The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, said: ASCL General Secretary Dr John Dunford said: "It is an accepted fact in schools and colleges that foreign language GCSEs are harder than other GCSEs. This has put students off.
"We are not talking about 'dumbing down' the curriculum, but the level of difficulty needs to be brought into line with other subjects."
The head of the NASUWT teachers' union, Chris Keates, welcomed Dearing's "direction of travel".
"Teachers will welcome the fact that rather than proposing wholesale changes in teaching methods, Dearing is focusing on the way in which language learning is assessed," she said.
"Currently teachers feel constrained from using their professional judgement and expertise by the straight jacket of the assessment system."
Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Sarah Teather said any new policy must be backed up with proper funding and training for teachers, "many of whom won't have studied languages since they left school themselves".
Conservative spokesman david Willetts said all pupils should study a modern language to 16, which meant a concerted long-term strategy of increasing the number of teachers.
"Unless this takes place, we are currently at risk of creating an educational apartheid in secondary schools.
"As Lord Dearing¿s report demonstrates, there are schools where pupils are simply unable to study a language. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to study languages at GCSE."
We invited your comments. Here is a selection:
I agree! Young children learn languages so much more easily that adults. I helped to organise an after school French class at my daughter's school, but languages should be accessible to every child.
Not soon enough I say. It should be compulsory in all primary schools in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. Young children are absolutely ideal to teach foreign languages to. They have an in-built skill allowing them to pick up many languages very rapidly and efficiently. I am very surprised that it has taken the government so long to pick up on this !!!!
Cheryl Johnston, Edinburgh, Scotland
As a native Londoner and now teacher of English as a foreign language in Russia, I must admit that I am ashamed of the British attitude. Here it is understood that to suceed you must learn another language and I know students who, outside of their normal work or studies also struggle with two or even three foreign languages (ranging from French, German and even Arabic and Japanese).
I've taught pre-schoolers, all the way up and I have never heard even the most apathetic of teenagers mutter "what's the point?". A second language is essential. It's not just the system that needs to be re-thought, but the attitude behind it needs to change too. Starting young will help, but students need to understand that it's a serious matter in this modern world.
Finally, here, oral examinations are the norm. They are highly stressful, with students facing a board of examiners, picking a topic from random and then having to discuss it. It seems strange for one oral assessment in French to be viewed so negatively when it's used effectively enough (although far from perfectly) here with no complaints.
Val, Moscow, Russia
Should have been done years ago. The British and the Japanese must be the world's worst nations at learning foreign languages.
John Gillam, London, England
Language teaching is already excessively "dumbed down". Make them any easier and there will be no point in anybody studying languages at school any more. So bring the easy GCSEs into line with the language ones. Then there will be a point in studying any subject at GCSE.
Learning a second language increases your brain capacity and makes it easier to learn a much wider range of concepts, particularly if you start young. Teaching a language at a younger age is like rigorous mental exercise and will produce more academic school pupils. Non, mais oui, mais non, mais, oui, mais...
John, Hereford, UK
Foreign languages should be compulsory in primary school because children are the best foreign language learners. I was taught English from the second year of primary school in Portugal and I can assure this made me more interested in the English language and other languages such as French, which I am now learning. In addition foreign languages are important in today¿s competitive world of work and teaching primary school children a foreign language will make them more interested in languages and eager to learn more and more so at the end of the day they will be better prepared for their future careers.
Daniel Fernandes, Kettering, England
It has been clear to me for years, and particularly in my post as Head of Communications Faculty in a secondary school some 7 years ago, that the main problem is the curriculum content of Modern Foreign Language courses in secondary school. I have always found it extraordinary that after 5 years of secondary teaching of French, for example, the majority of pupils cannot speak, read or write the language except in short "phrase-book" sentences. It is possible to learn to speak a language in less than 6 months. The curriculum content does not permit teachers, who are fluent in another language, to teach their pupils to become equally fluent in its speech, or to read and write the language fluently. Young people in other EU countries do not appear to have this problem.
Whilst it is interesting for pupils to learn about the culture of another country and to learn phrases that enable them to order food in a restaurant, enquire about train times, or list their hobbies, it would be infinitely more useful for them to be able to hold a an actual conversation and use the language to communicate fully. ...
Jefh Davies, Redhill, Surrey, UK
It would be a good idea to make sure that primary school children can read and write in English before trying to make them learn another one.
I was born in Argentina and taught English in a bilingual school. Now I am living in UK with my partner and my four-year-old daughter who arrived in the country without knowning a word in English. Her mother tongue (like mine) is Spanish. It took her 7 months to master the language, starting with playgroup where she only used gestures to communicate. By the end of month 6 she already talked to other children 1 to 1 with no difficulty.
She is now attending reception class and also goes to Spanish Club and we see it as amazing the amount of time it took her to learn a language, she learnt in 7 months what it took me 16 years.
The younger, the better. I agree with that.
Silvia Cryan, Taunton, Somerset, UK
I welcome this recommendation. In Greece (I am English), a second (and even third) language is considered an extremely important attribute for a child to posses. Here, children start school at 6 and English is introduced in 3rd Grade (age 8). This year the Education Ministry is trying a second foreign language, either French or German from 5th Grade (age 10). Most Greek parents already send their kids to private lessons to learn a second language (predominently, English is the 1st choice) from age 7.
In UK our kids are at a disadvantage compared with other European countries and the fact that they already speak English means that they have no incentive to learn a second language (as they know that wherever they go in the world, English will be spoken).
As children are able to absorb and learn languages easier the earlier they are taught, I think a clear move should be for languages to be taught in primary school. If curriculums are too tight, then drop something else. This is too important to be ignored.
Tracey M. Taylor, Athens, Greece
Allowing a candidate to demonstrate at the end of a GCSE course ( in what is effectively only ten minutes )what he or she can say in the foreign language is hardly an unreasonable demand. One suspects that the proposal to axe this form of assessment is more about making exams 'easier' than making them 'less stressful'. I'm all for making languages more attractive to students but not at the (further?) expense of the integrity of the qualification. What is the point in collecting GCSEs like badges when you don't really learn anything of substance in the process?
N Dodds, Durham
Languages should be compulsory at both primary school and secondary school. I am dutch and we start teaching children foreign languages at the age of five. We subtitle all foreign movies and programmes which gives us the required exposure. English maybe the world language but it would do English speaking people a lot of good to have to learn to speak another language, if only to understand how difficult it is and how easy one can be misunderstood speaking a foreign language. Another issue is the that the tests at GCSE level are appallingly low standard.There should be more emphasis on speaking the language. I have sat in a few GCSE's and what was required to get an A* was minimal. This not help children to feel comfortable enough to speak a foreign language.
I think I am able to judge here since I do speak four languages and I know how difficult it is but also how rewarding it is if you can speak more than one language. Another fact is that when children are exposed to more than one language and start learning more than one language that this has a very positive effect on their cognitive learning and will help them in later life with complicated mathematical concepts. So it has positive side effects in other areas as well.
Mariken van Dolen, Fleet, Hampshire
I'm sorry but there simply isn't time for the kids to waste their time learning foreign languages, doing PE, history, geography etc... Numeracy and literacy are the most important. Devoting a morning a day to these two simply isn't enough. We need kids want can count! Ils sont vraiment amusement, eh, les gamins?
Hugh Labor-Polisy, Brighton