Foreign languages have never been a strong point of the citizens of island Britain, and unless urgent steps are taken by schools throughout the land, fluency in tongues other than English may decline still further.
This is the depressing conclusion of language teachers who have been studying new statistics showing that foreign language teaching in Britain is producing relatively few competent linguists, even in the main European languages.
Were it not for private schools that put language teaching high on their list of educational priorities, trained linguists would be even rarer than they are now.
The statistics show that although 90 percent of British pupils set out to learn a foreign language early in foreign language early in their school careers , two-thirds of them stop studying a second language by the age of 14.
Of the remainder, a mere 3 percent go on to qualify for a so-called A level in languages. And A level is the highest form of (general) pass in British pre-university education.
When Britain entered the European Community nearly eight years ago it was expected that interest in European languages would increase.
But entry overlapped with the phasing out of state-supported grammar schools, traditional centers of excellence in language training.
This meant that many good language teachers moved to private schools. According to figures made available to head-masters recently, more than one-third of male pupils studying French to advanced levels do so at private schools, which account for only 1/20th of the country's secondary school population.
Educationists offer two main reasons why many pupils lack enthusiasm for learning French, German, Spanish, and other European languages:
One: The comparative ease with which it is possible to move about Western Europe nowadays, speaking English supplemented with a smattering of other languages. At the European Community, English is steadily displacing French as the main working language of Brussels officials.
Two: Old-fashioned language teaching methods (more written translations and less speaking) are still used in British schools. These persuade lots of pupils to avoid language courses and opt for other subjects.
Educationists note that most schools in Britain still teach foreign languages in a mainly literary manner, with insufficent emphasis on fluency in speaking.
In West Germany, nearly two-thirds of language classroom time is spent in conversation. In Britain the average is one-fifth. A number of schools are trying to correct the imbalance, among them the most famous public (i.e. private) school of all -- Eton.
There, off the playing fields, pupils are learning the language of France from a genuine French mistress, the first ever to have entered Eton's portals.