Education Secretary Michael Gove says he wants every child aged five or over to learn a foreign language and promises to “pull every lever” to make it happen, including encouraging longer school days.
In an interview with The Guardian on Saturday, he hit out at the “perverse pride” taken in not knowing a foreign tongue and insisted there is a “slam-dunk case” for extending language teaching.
Gove said some schools in deprived areas are teaching languages to five-year-olds and so it should be possible nationwide.
However, he also indicated that there was a large task ahead to make that happen.
“If we pull all the levers, change teacher training, help training schools to support others to go down this path, get schools that have language potential to take over under-performing schools, and we move the curriculum review in the right direction, then we can move towards the goal,” he said.
“The number of pupils sitting a language GCSE plummeted from 444,700 in the summer of 1998 to 273,000 in 2010.
“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.”
Gove said that learning a language makes people “smarter” all round.
“Just as some people have taken a perverse pride in not understanding mathematics, so we have taken a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English,” he said.
“It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”
Figures from EU statistics service Eurostat show the number of British primary school pupils learning a foreign language have risen sharply since 2000, lifting it to seventh in the European rankings by 2008.
But numbers for secondary students have plunged, pushing Britain down to 25th place in the league table of the EU’s 27 countries.
National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower told the BBC: “Many schools are already providing a language learning experience for children at primary level.
“There is a need to ensure this teaching is provided by qualified teachers and is well integrated into the whole primary curriculum.”
By Philippe Huguen