HL Deb 03 May 2000 vol 612 cc1013-5

2.55 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to reverse the decline in the numbers of British students taking German and French at A-level.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the post-16 curriculum reforms we are introducing in September are designed to enable students to opt for a wider range of subjects while maintaining current standards. I expect many young people to use the new advanced subsidiary qualification, representing the first half of the full A-level, as a way to continue studying at least one modern language at advanced level. A number of universities have already indicated that they will be giving credit to broader programmes of study in selecting candidates for entry from 2002.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government will consider the proven impact over a long period of time of youth and student exchanges between countries. Over the years, for example, the Franco-German exchange has resulted not only in an enormous enhancement of linguistic ability in both languages and in both countries, but also in an understanding of the culture that lies behind the language. Given the importance of our relations with those countries, will the Government consider actively enhancing the level of youth and student exchanges, not only between France and Germany and the United Kingdom, but between this country and other members of the European Union?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there is no better way of learning a modern foreign language than going to the country where it is spoken and using the language there. The Government strongly endorse everything that the noble Lord says about the value of such visits and exchanges. Indeed, the Government support the work of the agency that promotes such exchanges between schools. I accept that even more can probably be done. Under the new Socrates programme which has just been agreed right across the European Union, more work will be done to promote visits by young people, not just in France and Germany but in other European countries also.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, as the Minister will doubtless know, just one week today we shall have the report of the Nuffield language inquiry that was chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd. Will the Government seize this moment to make a fresh onslaught on our deplorable monolingualism, so that we can start approaching the educational levels achieved apparently effortlessly by our continental neighbours, along with the cultural values that flow therefrom?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government greatly look forward to the report of the Nuffield languages group. I have had one meeting with some of those who are involved in it; however, I cannot anticipate exactly what they will say. An onslaught on monolingualism is more difficult in a country whose own language and mother tongue has become the lingua franca around the world. But we do need to encourage as many young people as possible to study a modern language beyond the compulsory school leaving age of 16, up to which time they do have to study a modern language. Since young people choose what subjects they take at A-level and AS-level, it is a matter of promoting a climate in which young people think it worth their while to study these subjects rather than of forcing them down their throats.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is not so much a question of creating a climate as the cultural richness of being able to converse with and understand people in a foreign country?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, an understanding of modern foreign languages makes it easier for young people to become more aware of the cultures of our neighbouring countries and those far beyond.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is time to stop referring to a language that is widespread throughout the world as "the lingua franca"?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, that phrase is often used all over the world, but I apologise if my noble friend does not like it.

Earl Russell

My Lords, has the Minister ever been to an international meeting where more of the British people present can speak the foreign language concerned than the foreign people can speak English? If not, I hope that she can look forward to such an occasion.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, no, except for one occasion when, as my noble friend reminds me, he and I visited Cardiff prison.