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Foreign Language Teaching

1.30 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship for the second day in a row, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that today I shall do so for slightly longer than yesterday, but only just.

I am delighted to have secured the debate—it looks as though it may not be much of a debate, however, as so few other Members are here—not least because I believe that modern foreign languages are essential to our economic and cultural future. The global economy in which we live requires global people who can speak foreign languages as well as their mother tongue. International trade provides 30 per cent. of the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom. If we are to be a successful economy, English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish people must be able to speak more than English alone. Of businesses in the UK, 44 per cent. say that the lack of the ability to speak a foreign language dramatically affects their chances of securing exports.

I also believe that a modern language can dramatically improve job prospects for young people. I am concerned that the job prospects of young people in my constituency who grow up unable to speak a foreign language will be affected by that. Learning a foreign language early in life gave my father and me opportunities, in Spain and Belgium as well as in the UK, that changed the fortunes of our family.

We need to get away from the myth that teacher and translator are the only jobs that speaking foreign languages enables people to get. The truth is that most hotels in Cardiff need people who speak the mother tongues of visitors to the city. We should be able to greet people who come to the UK even if they do not happen to speak English. Manufacturing, sales and marketing are affected as well. In a range of jobs, the ability to engage in a decent business conversation in a second language—the language of the host country that one is visiting—can only assist our economic chances.

Having spent two years working in Brussels, the European Union and the BBC, and having seen Members of the European Parliament at work, I believe that a political class that speaks a variety of modern languages can be far more effective in Europe than one that speaks only its mother tongue. In the past, the UK delegation has been able to say only "Kall ispera", or a couple of words of French or Spanish. That has meant that it has not been able to bat as well on behalf of Britain as it might have done had it had mastery of another language.

Lest we become too utilitarian in the analysis of the importance of modern foreign languages, it is important to remember that many world languages have come to the UK during the past 40 or 50 years. Our country now has many people who speak the languages of south Asia fluently as a second or even a first tongue, which has provided us with another economic advantage. Also, the exposure to other cultures that being able to speak a foreign language can bring can only enhance one's understanding and enjoyment of life. The ability to read "Don Quixote" in Spanish, "Madame Bovary" in French or great works in Arabic or Mandarin can only add to the rich tapestry of life.

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We have a problem in the United Kingdom because not enough people learn modern foreign languages, and it is a crying shame that we come last in the European table of those who speak them. It is also a problem that only one in 10 people continues to study foreign languages after the age of 16, and that few 14-year-olds have the required ability in languages.

There are many reasons for those problems, not least the fact that English has become the world language and, in many cases, the language of business. There is undoubtedly a feeling around the world and in this country that English is enough. We are not exposed enough to foreign cultures, and we mainly encounter American culture—in English, even though Spanish is a significant language in large parts of the United States.

We have remarkably few role models who speak or make a point of speaking foreign languages. I know that Kylie Minogue is Australian, not British—

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): She is Welsh.

Mr. Bryant : Her mother may be from Maesteg, but that does not quite make her Welsh. She was also nominated for Welsh woman of the year two years ago, but that was a bit of an overstatement. Kylie tried to speak French in one of her recent songs, but I do not think that the words "Votre disco a besoin de vous" will be enough to encourage young people in Britain to start studying a modern foreign language.

We need role models in the political class, and it would be interesting to know how many Cabinet Ministers and shadow Cabinet Ministers could engage in a full business meeting in a second or third language. We also need cultural leaders who can express themselves in foreign languages, and who make a point of doing so. They could give that expertise to schools and colleges throughout the country and increase the profile of modern foreign languages.

We have another problem in that historically, we have focused on French to the exclusion of all other languages. I have French friends who maintain that it is the most precise language in the world, which is why it is still the language of diplomacy. When one reminds them that the French words for "worms", "glass", "green" and "towards" all sound the same, however, their argument falls apart. Of course, French is still useful in some parts of the world, but we must surely diversify the modern foreign languages taught in the United Kingdom.

Spanish has become one of the great world languages, and it provides enormous opportunities in Latin America and other parts of the world. I suspect that one reason why British trade with Latin America over the past 50 years has not followed the same pattern as that of France, Italy and Spain is that remarkably few British people still speak Spanish. That is despite the fact that one in four Britons goes on holiday to Spain every year—although ordering fish and chips in Spanish is remarkably difficult. Surely, we should also pursue a deliberate strategy of ensuring that more of our young people learn Japanese, Arabic and German. We must make those languages common currency in the United Kingdom.

We also have a problem because there are not enough foreign language teachers at primary and secondary school level. That is particularly important at primary

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school level, because many teachers have a genuine interest in languages, and with a bit of work, could be brought on enough to start teaching Spanish, German or other languages. Historically, however, that work has not been done, and we have tended to start teaching languages quite late in children's school lives.

That brings me to another problem. Across the UK, the style of teaching modern languages is not quite right. When I was at school, we used "La Langue d'Aujourd'hui" to learn French—a very dull book that bore no resemblance to modern life. My French teacher had, I think, only just heard of Edith Piaf, and when he played Edith Piaf records to us, that was him exposing us to modern French culture. That was not the 1960s; I was at school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Edith Piaf was long dead. Similarly, in Spanish language teaching it sometimes seems that the teachers have heard of Julio Iglesias but not Enrique.

There is a task still to be done in changing the way in which we teach modern languages, so that learning them is about being able to communicate with people, not acquiring a set of statistics and learning a set of rules about the way in which another language works. Learning languages should be seen as having a use in life.

There are problems if we start language learning too late. It is clear that until the age of about seven or eight, we all have a remarkable ability to pick up language. We are then remarkably "sticky", and it will stick to us.

Hywel Williams : I agree entirely with the drift of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree that we do not have an inherent inability to learn language, and that the statement that we are bad at languages in Britain is entirely wrong? The case in point is the half a million people in Wales who speak Welsh and English, and live their daily lives through the medium of a second language.

Apart from the problems that the hon. Gentleman has already identified, such as role models and an emphasis on poor teaching methods, does he agree that there is a more fundamental issue concerning the power relationships between languages—power that is propped up by Governments, broadcasting, the media, business and so on? We need to be much more aware of such things.

Mr. Bryant : The power of language is an issue, and a further issue is the complacency that we who speak English feel about the need to speak other languages because we see so many people, such as Dutch and German people, who seem to speak better English than we do. It is important for us to recognise that the future of the English language probably lies more in the hands of those who do not speak it as a first language than in our own hands. Americans have changed the English language far more than we have, and I suspect that Hispanics speaking English will dramatically change English, just as Chaucer changed it, and as the Normans who came to England before him dramatically changed it, when it was their second language.

A problem across the whole of the United Kingdom is that by the age of 14, many young people seem to see languages as a subject only for the most able students, or

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only for girls. That again involves issues of power. The Government have already looked at that problem in some depth, but I think that we need to focus on it in the future, too.

We have some specific problems in Wales, not least because the figures for the learning of modern foreign languages in Wales are even worse than those for England. During the past five years there has been a dramatic fall in the number of students in Wales studying modern foreign languages of any kind at GCSE—from 49 per cent. to 39 per cent. That is worse in Welsh-medium than in English-medium schools. In English-medium schools, 41 per cent. of pupils do such subjects at GCSE, but in Welsh-medium schools, the figure is only 33 per cent. If only one in three students at a Welsh-medium school is learning a modern language other than English and Welsh, we are providing ourselves with a long-term problem.

Furthermore, we should also think about languages outside the normal run of European languages: 11,600 people in the UK studied for a GCSE or an A-level in one of the four major south Asian languages last year, but of that 11,600, only 72 were in Wales. There may be all sorts of reasons for that, not least the ethnic diversity and make-up of communities elsewhere in the UK compared with those in Wales. None the less, in a global economy, that will give us a long-term problem.

The university of Glamorgan no longer has a modern languages department at all. We are now producing a vicious circle in Wales whereby fewer students do GCSEs, fewer do A-levels, fewer go on to universities because there are fewer opportunities to do so, and so fewer will become modern language teachers, which is a long-term problem in the making. A particular danger for Wales is that we may become a nation that is very good at speaking to itself, but not good at speaking to the rest of the world.

Although I wholeheartedly support the campaign to ensure that everybody has a choice of language in which to conduct their daily life and be educated, and I generally support the Welsh language, it is a worry to me that we are currently unable to capitalise on the natural benefit provided by bilingualism, and fewer of our bilingual students are learning a language that they can use outside Wales.

Hywel Williams : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bryant : If the hon. Gentleman is quick.

Hywel Williams : There might be a problem in terms of the percentage of people learning a foreign language, but the quality of that learning varies. It is undoubtedly the case that if one has two languages it is easier to acquire a third one. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

Mr. Bryant : I am afraid that that flies in the face of the figures. Whereas people in England seem to have decided that English is enough, the figures show that many young people in Wales have decided, perhaps for economic reasons, that English and Welsh are enough. I am arguing that a nation that can speak only to itself is setting itself terrible economic problems for the future. I do not want to undermine the support for the Welsh

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language, but I do want to encourage greater support for other modern languages. If foreign languages become a poor relation in Wales, our economic future will be bleak.

I shall look at some of the solutions before the Minister replies. It is clear that we need to raise the profile of modern foreign languages. I know that the Government have worked to do that, but we have further to go. We need to get across the belief that English is not enough—and in Wales, that English and Welsh are not enough. One route that we could investigate is having a single figurehead to bring coherence to our strategy across the UK. Somebody in every local authority could back up such a UK languages tsar. No local authority in Wales has anybody dealing specifically and solely with modern foreign languages.

We need to build on initiatives such as the Spanish language officer who has been appointed in Wales to help schools, and is paid by the Spanish Government, as a means of increasing co-operation between countries. We need to increase the number of exchange programmes to allow young people to be exposed to other cultures. It is only by immersion in another language that one has an opportunity to acquire it as a working language.

Broadcasters have an important role to play. I remember trying, not very successfully, to learn Russian many years ago, thanks to the BBC programme "Dosvidanya Lyeta"—one can tell how poorly I got on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. At this point I must remind the hon. Gentleman that foreign quotations should be translated into English. There may be people present who can translate, but others may not be able to do so.

Mr. Bryant : "Dosvidanya Lyeta" means "Goodbye Summer", and it was the name of a series of programmes aimed at enabling people to learn Russian.

We have remarkably few foreign language films on television. It would be excellent if Welsh language films such as "Soloman and Gaynor", which was part Yiddish, part English and part Welsh, were shown not only on S4C but to a wider market.

We need to start earlier. The recent experiments in Welsh primary schools were not all that successful, and they need to be followed up and examined to find ways of extending the diversity of the languages taught in primary schools to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to learn foreign languages by 2012—a goal to which the Government aspire.

Specifically, we need to capitalise on bilingualism in Wales. English and Welsh are not enough, and we need to ensure that more of our business leaders speak modern foreign languages in Wales. I wonder whether some objective 1 money should be specifically targeted at increasing the number of business leaders, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises, who have modern European languages.

My final point is a simple one. We need to capitalise on the resources that we have throughout the whole United Kingdom. Three institutions that have served us extremely well across the years in terms of modern foreign languages are under-utilised. First, the Defence

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School of Languages has an extremely strong record in giving defence personnel and others ability in foreign languages, which is vital in all the peacekeeping roles that we play throughout the world. Secondly, there is the diplomatic service's languages centre, and thirdly, there is the World Service. We could capitalise better on all three of those institutions, and give Britain a stronger future as a multilingual nation.

1.50 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) on securing time for a debate on language teaching and learning in the United Kingdom. I have to say that I am personally passionate about the importance of language learning. I was fortunate enough to have learned four languages by the time I was five years old. That has stood me in very good stead; one never forgets them, and can then build an ear for languages. I dare not try too much after what has been said, but I can even manage the odd Arabic sentence. One is something along the lines of, "Bukara ei mish mish", which means "Tomorrow we shall have apricots". That underpins the debate, in a sense, because one puts off all decisions until the next day.

I came to Britain with my family when I was young, so I know the importance of being able to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers. That is not just about promoting economic prosperity, as my hon. Friend said, but also allows one to make oneself understood and promotes intercultural understanding, tolerance and international citizenship. I think that that is crucial.

We have made a lot of progress in Britain since the development of a national strategy for languages, which arose out of the Nuffield report and inquiry in May 2000. We have now set out some of our ambitions to improve this country's performance at languages over the next decade. Alongside our Green Paper on the agenda for 14 to 19-year-olds, we published a paper about language learning. Some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised related to higher education, but higher education and the training of teachers cannot lie in a vacuum; they have to be built from the blocks underneath. That means establishing, as he said, a culture and lifelong interest in language learning right through from primary school and into secondary school.

We have set out our ambitions in the pamphlet "Language Learning". At present, we estimate that something like one in five primary schools have some sort of language provision. We want all primary school children to be entitled to study a language by 2012. We have started putting the building blocks in place. The Teacher Training Agency is now funding specific places for primary French initial teacher training.

Hywel Williams : Will the Minister give way?

Margaret Hodge : I will, but I am very short of time.

Hywel Williams : Would the Minister agree that having two languages is an aid to learning a third, or does she agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that two at one time is quite enough?

Margaret Hodge : My personal experience was that I was not muddled by having four. Very young children

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can adapt quickly to language learning, so I am keen that they do so as early as they can. I support the initiative of our Department to base it in the primary curriculum. There are also 141 specialist language secondary schools. Each secondary specialist school will be expected to link with another five schools as part of the functions for which it receives its additional resources.

We are developing virtual links with schools in other countries through the use of the information and communication technology to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda referred. In Europe we have signed an agreement with the Spanish to try to develop an internet link for schools and the teaching of language to facilitate some of the deficits in our ability to provide a cohort of language teachers. We are trying to address the issue of transition from primary to secondary. We want to increase the number of people studying languages in further and higher education and in work-based training, and we want to increase the number of people who teach languages.

I shall pick up one point made by my hon. Friend. He said that the university of Glamorgan had closed its modern foreign languages department—but it has adopted a new approach. My hon. Friend said that we should look at innovative ways in which languages can be taught. What the university has done is interesting. It has established a unilang centre in which it has invested substantially in a state-of-the-art, self-assessment, tutor-supported language-learning facility which is open to all students, whatever they are studying, to learn at their own pace and at a variety of levels. Students can have assessments and gain credits for language studies, but without the pressure of working to specific deadlines. I hope that my hon. Friend will support such initiatives.

Mr. Bryant : My biggest worry about the unilang proposal and the general route of providing a little modern language teaching alongside another course, which many universities are taking, is that it will not provide teachers in the long term.

Margaret Hodge : I accept that unilang will not provide teachers, but it will provide the facility for individuals to learn a language that they can use in their jobs and in the wider cultural community.

The difficulty that we face in the United Kingdom is that English is, to some extent, the lingua franca of the 21st century. My hon. Friend referred to that fact, and I accept that it is true. To give one instance, students from outside Europe who are studying in France may take

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their degrees in English. The purpose of that is to attract international students and compete with British universities. Although the French would not like to admit to that, it is the reality, and it shows the strength of English. That is why United Kingdom students are reluctant to study modern foreign languages at degree level. They simply do not need them to the same extent as in the past. It would be wonderful if more of our students could quote freely from Molière to Goethe, and from Dante to Cervantes, but they must be convinced that it is important.

My hon. Friend referred to the research by the Languages National Training Organisation last year which revealed the important fact that 20 per cent. of employers said that they had lost business because of a deficit in language skills, and 45 per cent. reported that language or cultural issues were a barrier to international trade. We must build on that as we try to encourage more young British people to learn a whole range of modern foreign languages.

I have recently reviewed the Socrates Erasmus programme, and we import twice as many people to study here as we export to study in foreign universities. I hope that simplifying the fees and student support arrangements, talking to some of the agencies and so on will help to increase mobility.

There is a shortage of language teachers. In January 2002 there were 190 vacant modern language posts in secondary schools in England—about 1.2 per cent., down from 1.5 per cent. We are trying to tackle that with training bursaries and golden hellos, which have led to an increase, but we are also finding that students who undertake a modern languages degree, whether that is a single or joint honours degree or part of a joint degree with another subject, do not necessarily move into language teaching. We must be constantly vigilant and take whatever initiatives we can to encourage more and more people to do that.

I hope that in my very brief response I have demonstrated to my hon. Friend and to the Chamber the importance that we place on learning modern foreign languages. A huge range of challenges must be addressed. There are exemplars of good practice and achievement throughout the education system, but there is also evidence of pupils losing interest and dropping languages at key stage 4. We must work to keep young people engaged in language learning from an early age, and we must demonstrate the value of language competence, not least the future employability benefits that are open to language graduates. We must look at flexible and innovative ways of delivering language in the curriculum. That is the reason for the action we have taken to date—



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