Word Up!

After years of dithering and de-prioritisation, it seems parliamentary action to address the decline in British citizens’ language learning is finally approaching. The Holyrood and Westminster governments are announcing plans for change, trying to put the brakes on a decade of implosion which has seen the numbers of young people taking foreign language qualifications at schools decimated. In 2010, 43% of pupils aged 15-16 were entered for a language in national examinations, down from a peak of 75% in 2002.

In London, the focus will be on English and other languages. The education secretary, Michael Gove, will promise a new focus on spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schools later this week. Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recite poetry by heart in England. He will also put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

In May 2012, a study commissioned by the Scottish government said children in Scotland should begin learning a second language as soon as they start school at the age of five. The recommendations – made by the government’s Modern Languages Working Group  – also suggest that children should start to learn a third language before they reach 10 years old.

If this seems radical in a British context, it certainly isn’t unusual within Europe. Last year, the Edinburgh-based Consuls General of France, Germany, Spain, Italy and China joined forces to warn that Scotland needed to take modern languages more seriously. Scottish exports to these five nations alone were worth £4.52bn in 2009, representing about 21% of Scotland’s total international exports.

There are so many reasons for supporting these proposals. For a start, it’s easier for pupils to learn new languages when they’re young. They’ll become more fluent and the learning process will be more fun. Learning early will also help them to develop skills in their first language. And it will confer general cognitive benefits which will assist their all-round personal development.

Of course, many of these benefits can also be gained from learning indigenous languages other than English, and there is evidence of Gaelic being more popular than German in some Scottish schools . The current campaign to introduce school qualifications in British Sign Language  also looks set to be highly popular with pupils, and to promise significant broadening of linguistic, cultural and social horizons amongst students.

Still, as good as these plans may be, they won’t work unless there are teachers capable of delivering them. Modern languages have not hitherto been seen as a major priority – it’s future teachers of maths and sciences who qualify for the most generous ‘golden hellos’ (). Still, Throughout the UK, there appears to be belated recognition that it is never too soon for children to start on the path to bilingualism but is it too little, too late? Let us know what you think in the “Comments” box below.


Author: Graham Turner