DESPITE the expansion of higher education and the increasingly international nature of business, the facility of Scots with foreign languages is diminishing to the point where the deficiency costs the economy half a billion pounds a year.
The SNP's manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood election included a commitment to enable every child in Scotland to learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue. It is sorely needed. The raft of recommendations from the Scottish Government's languages working group could turn a country of monoglots into one of confident linguists but to do so will require considerable financial commitment beyond the additional £600,000 allocated to Scotland's National Centre for Languages next year.
A key part of the process is following the lead of other European countries by introducing children to their first foreign language in Primary 1 and to their second before the end of primary school. This has much to recommend it. There is considerable evidence that children find it easier to learn new languages at a younger age. With the emphasis on acquiring vocabulary through games and songs rather than conjugating verbs, the idea that learning a new language is fun can be firmly planted. Learning foreign languages provides a sense of the mechanics of language that enables a better understanding of English grammar, something too many children have been denied in recent years.
These advantages cannot be achieved without extra training for teachers. The recommendation for primary and secondary schools to work closely together to ensure continuity is also vital if more pupils are to continue with languages and reverse the decline that has accelerated since a language was no longer compulsory at standard grade. There was a 4% drop in the number of students sitting Highers in French, German and Italian last year, a trend that has grown over the last decade and resulted in some colleges ending all language courses.
Despite the aspiration that every child should learn two foreign languages, local authorities have reduced the number of foreign language assistants in schools by 80%, demonstrating that language teaching cannot expect any exemption from cuts. The unprecedented joint protest from the consul generals of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and China, who pointed out that an assistant cost only £8000 a year while their countries' trade links with Scotland were worth around £4.5 billion a year, should cause a re-think. Today's report provides evidence that more radical action is required if the next generation is to possess the basic skills for an international age.
Scotland has built up a wealth of experience and good practice in introducing a second language at a young age through Gaelic medium education and this should pave the way for other languages. Communication is the key to business success in an increasingly global market and Scotland has a great deal of ground to make up.
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