Jayne Dowle: Don’t rely on an airport to mind our languages

Ignorance towards foreign languages is a national disgrace, says Jayne Dowle.
Ignorance towards foreign languages is a national disgrace, says Jayne Dowle.
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IT is a great irony that the more we travel, the less inclined we are to speak any kind of foreign language. The situation has become so dire that Heathrow Airport has now taken matters into its own hands.

Just in time for the Easter holidays, and in partnership with the Centre for Economics and Business Research, it has launched the Little Linguists initiative. This is a collection of flashcards with simple phrases in French, German and Mandarin for children to learn as they loaf about in the departure lounge waiting for their plane.

Great news for the children lucky enough to be flying off to the sun or taking a skiing holiday this Easter. What though of the millions not so fortunate?

The teaching and learning of languages in our primary and secondary schools is in crisis. There is no other word for it.

Our children are simply not being prepared for a world in which globalisation rules. The serious academic research behind this Heathrow gimmick finds that language skills have the potential to add £500bn to the UK economy in the next decade.

This is rather a spurious figure. However, the point is clear. Youngsters who leave education without any proficiency in linguistics are not as valuable as those who can speak and write confidently in a language other than their mother tongue. And yet out of more than 2,000 UK parents surveyed, 45 per cent said that their offspring had no ability in a second language at all.

Even more worrying, 19 per cent of children are not interested in learning new languages and 10 per cent find them too difficult.

I know this at first-hand. With all of the above economic motivations in mind, I tried to persuade my teenage son to study French to GCSE level. I also wanted him to develop his proficiency simply for the sheer enjoyment of knowing another language.

Although my own command of French remains very much in the schoolgirl category, it has got me through some sticky situations abroad. The most memorable occasion? Summoning a taxi to a war cemetery in the middle of the Normandy countryside on a family holiday.

Back in Barnsley, my son’s teacher was a young and extremely enthusiastic Geordie dedicated to making languages accessible to youngsters from ordinary backgrounds. As part of my persuasion campaign, I went in to school to meet him. He sent me home with an impressive list of French popular culture websites and YouTube names to help Jack.

To no avail. Jack insisted that the subject was too difficult and admitted that the thought of the final oral exam was terrifying. He didn’t actually say this, but I also got the feeling that studying a language was not deemed “cool”, despite the number of youngsters I know who say that it is their ambition to work in the travel industry when they leave school.

There’s a lack of joined-up thinking from schools and parents, obviously. For example, if my daughter said she wanted to work in the hotel business, I think I would have to find a way of forcing her to study Spanish. Thanks to her pleasingly pro-active primary school, she does know the word for “pencil sharpener”, but that’s not going to get her very far. If we don’t take the entry requirements for certain careers more seriously, we do our children a huge disservice.

There is absolutely no point in allowing a youngster to progress through school with a certain outcome in mind without equipping them for every stage of the journey.

However, the Government must play a part in this. It has not been compulsory for GCSE pupils to study a foreign language since 2004. Consequently, the number of exam candidates has been steadily dropping. The British Council says that in 2015, the number of French exams fell by 6.2 per cent compared with the previous year, German by almost 10 per cent and Spanish by 2.4 per cent. At A-level, only Spanish is seeing an upwards trajectory, with a rise of 14 per cent in exam candidates.

That dreaded “exam” is regularly identified as the main deterrent. Far be it from me to suggest further reform in schools, but surely ministers might be able to come up with some solutions?

Action must be taken before it’s too late. In countless schools provision is becoming limited or even curtailed. What chance then will young people have to compete on the multi-billion pound global platform Heathrow’s research highlights?

Far from being a niche subject, languages should be at the heart of the curriculum. They should be incorporated into learning from the foundation years upwards. I urge a serious re-think at the Department for Education because it comes to something when we have to rely on an airport to teach our children how to ask for an ice cream in Mandarin.