HL Deb 25 January 2001 vol 621 cc351-4

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Hooper asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to mark the year 2001 as the European Year of Languages.

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

My Lords, the Minister for Europe and I hosted an event today to promote the year. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching is managing the UK's contribution. Its publication Languages for Life sets out the events taking place.

On Monday, we announced nine new specialist language colleges to promote language learning, bringing the total to 108. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has produced guidance on primary level language teaching and an estimated one in five primary schools teaches foreign languages.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the welcome news contained in her reply. Does she agree that the Nuffield inquiry into the languages capability of the United Kingdom focused on areas where current provision needs to be improved? The Nuffield report was published about eight months ago but I understand that as yet there has been no formal response from the Government. When will that formal response be forthcoming and when will there be a commitment to action? I hope that it will be during the European Year of Languages.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government published the response to the Nuffield inquiry today. I shall ensure that that response is placed in the Library so that the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and any other interested Members of your Lordships' House are able to read it. It proposes that a working party should be set up with Nuffield to develop action derived from its recommendations.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that one in five primary schools is introducing language teaching. Are the Government prepared to follow the continental practice of beginning all language teaching at the age of eight?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I believe it would be sensible for the Government to wait until the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's study of the pilots that are taking place in 150 primary schools has been completed before we make such commitments. However, the Government certainly welcome the voluntary commitment that substantial numbers of primary schools are now making to start teaching modern languages much earlier than in the past.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a long time has elapsed between the Nuffield inquiry that took place in May last year and the response of the Government? Do the Government recall that at that point Nuffield said that the Government lacked any coherent strategies to deal with the language crisis in Britain and in particular highlighted the fact that nine youngsters out of 10 at the age of 16 cease any kind of language instruction whatever? Can the Minister tell us whether any decisive action is to be taken to reverse such a damaging situation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in this country the lack of ability to speak modern languages is a function of the education of us all over many years. A partnership action between employers, the Government and individuals needs to be taken to address such a situation. The Minister for Europe and I issued a challenge today to many more people to start learning a foreign language as adults. He has made a commitment to learn French and I have made a commitment to refresh my extremely rusty French.

In relation to young people giving up languages at the age of 16, I am pleased that, as a result of the Government's reforms to the 16 to 19 curriculum and the broadening of A-levels, there appears to be a bigger take-up in foreign languages by young people in that age group, with substantial additional numbers taking an AS-level in a modern language.

Lord Laird

My Lords, in talking about the European Year of Languages, I ask the Minister to bear in mind the minority languages, of which there are 40 that are recognised in the European Union. Is she as thrilled as many noble Lords are at the resurgence of Ulster Scots in my native land of Northern Ireland? In any actions that the Government may take, will she ensure that they look after the activities of those minority languages that are recognised by the European Union and which are spoken inside the United Kingdom?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. The European Year of Languages covers minority languages as well as the mother tongues spoken by the majority of the populations right across Europe.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in support of my noble friend Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, I ask the Minister whether she accepts that the younger one is the easier it is to learn a language. Does she recall how extremely easy she found it to learn English?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, said earlier and what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said. It is well known that it is easier for small children to learn languages than it is to start learning a language in adulthood. On the other hand, it is also easy for small children to forget languages unless there is a consistent and long-term commitment to teach them throughout their schooling. The Government are committed to try to promote that and we are taking a variety of different actions to make language teaching in our schools more effective, including the specialist language schools to which I referred in my initial reply.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following the question put by my noble friend Lord Watson of Richmond, can the noble Baroness indicate whether over the past five years, in her opinion, there has been an improvement both in the extent and in the effectiveness of language teaching?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I believe that we are beginning to see improvements as a result of the fact that there are now 108 specialist secondary schools focusing on the teaching of foreign languages, although it will take some time for all the improvements that we would expect from that kind of development and from the expansion of the teaching of languages in our primary schools to be effective. I believe that in the longer term we shall see big improvements, but we have to be patient.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the Zeitgeist may demand a rapprochement with the languages of our European neighbours, it is becoming increasingly difficult as so many people speak English?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course, it is easy to be lazy. When travelling in Europe it is becoming easier and easier to get away with speaking English. That is probably the experience of every noble Lord. Regrettably, that is also the experience of many young people, so trying to motivate them to learn a foreign language is tougher in this country than in many countries of the European Union.