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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Language learning in UK 'lags behind'
Primary classroom
Primary pupils should have to learn languages, says report
A radical overhaul of language teaching in schools is necessary to combat the UK's chronic languages shortage, says an inquiry.

Primary school children should be learning modern languages and knowledge of another language should be a condition of university entry, according to recommendations in a report by the Nuffield Foundation.

At the moment, by any reliable measure, we are doing badly.

Sir Trevor McDonald

Without an upgrading of language teaching, the United Kingdom will continue to be stuck with its "deplorable monolinguism", says the report.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd of the University of Cambridge, proposes that children should learn modern languages earlier and longer.

They should start at the age of seven, and continue through their school careers.

The report says that learning languages in some form should be compulsory in post-16 education.

Students applying to university, or those embarking on certain vocational qualifications, should be able to provide evidence of knowledge of a foreign language.

This will help the UK to catch up with competitor countries in Europe and Asia, where there is a greater proficiency with languages, the report says.

'Impoverished system'

It also suggests that a languages "supremo", with direct access to the Prime Minister, and attached to the Cabinet, should be appointed to orchestrate a national strategy for languages.

The report says: "We are fortunate to speak a global language, but, in a smart and competitive world, exclusive reliance on English leaves the UK vulnerable and dependent on the linguistic competence and the goodwill of others."

Sir Trevor said: "The capability in other languages- a much broader range than hitherto and in greater depth - is crucially important for a flourishing UK.

"The scale of what needs to be done has become ever more striking as our work has gone on.

"At the moment, by any reliable measure, we are doing badly."

The inquiry found that the UK had an "impoverished system" for teaching adults languages, outdated funding of university language departments, and an acute shortage of language teachers in schools and colleges.

Specialist schools

The government has welcomed the report, pointing to specialist language colleges as evidence of its commitment to improving language learning.

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith said specialist language colleges - schools which place a particular emphasis on teaching languages - had doubled since 1997 and more would open in the coming years.

"We want to see language colleges becoming the hub of language teaching in their localities, reaching out to other schools in their communities and championing the value of learning another language," she said.

The minister, although not backing calls for compulsory language teaching in primary schools, said that a quarter were already providing language lessons voluntarily.

At present, secondary schools are obliged to offer at least one modern language - with a voluntary languages curriculum available for children aged eight to 11.

The government had also made efforts to tackle the shortage of language teachers, she said, with the offer of 5,000 cash incentives for recruits into teacher training for modern languages.

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