A Oui Problem; as an Organisation Promoting the Speaking of Foreign Languages Holds Its Annual Members' Day in the North East, NEIL McKAY Asks Why the British Are So Poor at Learning Different Languages

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Byline: NEIL McKAY

RUUD Gullit may have been a disaster during his time as manager of Newcastle United, but the Dutchman's command of languages is impressive by any standards.

Apart from his native Dutch, he is fluent in English, Italian and German and offers his services as a celebrity speaker in all four.

Former Newcastle ace David Ginola is another sportsman who can switch from French to English apparently effortlessly, suggesting that not all footballers are as daft as some people think.

Certainly, Gullit and Ginola have a linguistic advantage over most people in Britain and new figures suggest that situation will only get worse. This year saw a slump in the number of teenagers taking A-levels in modern foreign languages, a trend evident since the Government made them optional instead of compulsory in 2002.

Britain's lack of interest in foreign languages comes despite our need for them being greater than ever. A recent CBI poll had three-quarters of UK firms having a need for foreign languages but roughly the same number expressing dissatisfaction with the standards of language skills among school leavers.

"It is not so much that the British have an inability to learn a foreign language, more that we feel we don't need to," says Sarah Heaps, marketing manager of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), which is holding a Members' Day in Durham next month. "When we go on holiday abroad we find that most people do speak English.

"Europeans, especially younger Europeans, pick English up through films and pop music. They seem to enjoy speaking English because it helps them relate to popular film or music stars."

The same, however, cannot be said for English teenagers learning foreign languages, many of whom have roughly the same proficiency in foreign languages as the English airman in 'Allo, Allo. Last year ministers announced a plan to review the teaching of French and other languages in schools after top universities expressed "grave concern" over GCSE results that revealed a dramatic decline in the numbers of pupils taking the subjects.

The number of students taking a language has dropped by a third since the Government made foreign language GCSEs optional instead of compulsory at GCSE seven years ago. Many schools with an eye on league tables are thought to have discouraged some students from what are traditionally harder to pass subjects.

Continued The decline of French has been particularly striking; it has nearly halved to just over

2004, and fell out of the top 10 most popular subjects this year. German and Spanish are also in decline, and more pupils chose to study geography or art for GCSE this year. Andrew Hall, chief executive of exam board AQA, said: "Modern foreign languages are in long-term decline here." Hope, if there was any, came from moves by the last Government to get children started learning languages earlier. Many primary schools teach a foreign language to children from a young age, hoping to get round the resistance to foreign cultures more prevalent in sulky teenagers.

Had the former Labour government been re-elected seven-year-olds would have been learning a foreign language when they returned to school next month. But plans to make learning a foreign language compulsory in primary schools were shelved by the Coalition Government and when The Journal contacted the Department for Education yesterday to ask what the current policy was on teaching foreign languages in primary schools a spokesman was unable to tell us. No announcement is likely to be made until the National Curriculum Review is published next year. Such a lack of clarity doesn't really augur well for our chances of producing linguists of the future.

One group that is trying to tackle the issue and hopes to motivate and enthuse young people from our region into studying foreign languages is Routes into Languages North East. …