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Friday, 3 August, 2001, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
Parlez-vous francais?
Mike Baker graphic
By education correspondent Mike Baker

Are you heading to France, Spain, Italy or anywhere else in Europe this summer?

Are you fluent in any other European languages? Or will you be relying on your children to help you order your "vin rouge" or "vino tinto"?

I deeply regret that I left school without achieving any real fluency in a foreign language

Although the British have become frequent visitors to continental Europe, and have adopted many international culinary and fashion habits, we remain appallingly poor linguists.

Which is why I was disappointed to read this week that an official investigation into foreign language teaching has recommended, once again, that it is not feasible to make the subject compulsory in English primary schools.


We all have our prejudices when it comes to education so I should perhaps start by admitting mine: I deeply regret that I left school without achieving any real fluency in a foreign language.

O-levels in French and Latin don't get you very far (especially if you only passed Latin by memorising the translation of the set book).

I have tried many times since to make good this poor grounding in modern foreign languages.

As an adult I have taken evening classes in Russian and Spanish.

But, unless you are living in the country where that language is spoken, it is very much more difficult to master a language as an adult than as a child.

Odd ones out

When it comes to learning foreign languages from a young age, we are the odd ones out in Europe.

In most countries children start learning a foreign language at an age between eight and ten.

In Spain, Italy and Greece, for example, a foreign language is part of the compulsory national curriculum for primary age pupils.

In England only around one primary school in five teaches a foreign language.

This proportion has remained largely unchanged for the last couple of decades with, if anything, a slight fall in the number of schools teaching a foreign language.

Research published this week shows that most of the foreign language teaching that does take place in primary schools occurs in extra lessons and clubs outside normal lessons.


So the place of foreign languages in primary schools is probably more precarious than it was 30 years ago.

Yet, in those three decades, we have become more involved with Europe in almost every sphere of life you can think of, with closer economic, employment and social ties.

It is also noticeable that most independent schools regularly teach languages to children of primary age.

The report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week recommended that it was not "appropriate" to extend compulsory languages into junior schools, primarily because of the difficulty of finding space in an already crowded curriculum and because of the shortage of specialist teachers.

It's only fair that those who support compulsory languages in primary schools should say what should be dropped to make room for them.

'Ahead of history'

Personally I would put languages ahead of history or geography in primary school.

After all, a basic command of languages can be built upon as a child moves through secondary school, whereas pupils effectively start again from scratch with knowledge-based subjects.

Curriculum overload and teacher shortages are not the only reasons given for keeping things as they are.

Some secondary school languages teachers feel that starting children in primary schools could be harmful.

Different levels

However, one of the main objections is to the wide variation in pupils' foreign language experience as they arrive at secondary school, with some having learned a language for two years while others have not even started.

This makes it hard for secondary schools to know how to pitch lessons.

This objection would, of course, be overcome if everyone took a language in primary school from, say, the age of nine.

The argument is also reminiscent of the mistake that was made the last time the government thought seriously about making languages compulsory before the age of 11.

Pilot scheme

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a pilot scheme for primary French involving 17,000 pupils.

An assessment of this scheme concluded that children who had started French at age eight were doing no better at secondary school than those who did not begin until age 11.

This conclusion largely killed the experiment.

However, it was realised much later on that this conclusion was affected by the fact that primary school French was taught very differently from the then O-level French courses.

In short the primary project was based on everyday spoken French whereas secondary school French was primarily based on more formal, written language.

Today the contrast between primary and GCSE French would not be so great and the conclusion less valid.

Changing times

Also, as the QCA report itself notes, there have been other significant developments since the 1970s.

These include Britain's membership of the EC, increased travel abroad, more multi-national companies and international labour mobility.

Also, foreign languages have now been compulsory in the secondary school curriculum since 1992 and the literacy strategy means primary school children are now more familiar with the rules of grammar.

So it seems to me we are again missing an opportunity.

The Labour Party's election manifesto did promise to "provide primary pupils with wider opportunities to learn.. a foreign language".

However the Department for Education responded to the QCA report by saying it has "no plans at present" to make languages compulsory in primary school.

So are we doomed to have to wait another ten or 20 years before another inquiry will consider starting language teaching earlier?

Or will ministers at least set a target date for its implementation so we can prepare the ground for the day when we can all go abroad and speak other languages rather than simply speaking more slowly and loudly in English in the hope "Johnny foreigner" will understand?

Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at although cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

13 Jun 01 | UK Education
30 Apr 01 | UK Education
10 May 00 | UK Education
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