A CRISIS in foreign language teaching across Scottish education is damaging overseas trade, the British Council warns today.
A Europe-wide survey of language teaching shows the number of pupils studying a second language in Scotland has fallen, says universities are suffering from severe financial pressures and describes modern language teaching in further education as “on the verge of collapse”.
The findings suggest Scottish companies are limiting their business to countries where English is spoken because of a lack of language skills.
The report comes as the Scottish Government announces its ambitious proposals that all Scottish children will learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue – with a pilot project involving nine primary schools to be announced at a summit in Stirling today.
Experts have praised the Scottish Government’s ambition, but say in reality language teaching in Scotland’s schools and colleges has been in decline for a decade.
According to the British Council report, the number of pupils studying modern languages at standard grade has fallen from 100 per cent in 2001 to 67 per cent in 2010. A huge decline in the number of foreign language assistants working in schools has denied a generation of pupils the chance to interact with native speakers as part of their education.
Director of the British Council in Scotland, Lloyd Anderson, said: “Something seems to be going backwards. Over the past ten years things have gone from good to less good.
“This report appears to confirm our fear that Scotland could be missing out on export opportunities if we simply expect everyone to speak English.
“Language learning is a vital component of being good ‘global citizens’. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, our young people and future workforce will be at a disadvantage if they lack language skills and cultural awareness.
“At the heart of all our programmes is a commitment to giving young people the skills they need to interact successfully with people from other countries and cultures.” Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “The Scottish Government can launch initiative after initiative, but it can’t hide from the depressing findings of the British Council report.”
Sarah Breslin, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (Scilt), said the profession had to challenge the notion that “English is enough”.
She said: “The Scottish Government is proposing that all young people have experience of two languages in addition to their mother tongue. It is very ambitious but it is exactly what Scotland needs.”
Minister for learning Dr Alasdair Allan will address the languages conference in Stirling today, setting out the Scottish Government’s plans to promote modern languages in schools and colleges.
Dr Allan said: “This government has set an ambitious target to increase the value of our international exports by 50 per cent by 2017 and ensuring our workforce has the right skills to compete internationally will play an important role in achieving this.
“This is why we are committed to reinvigorating language learning and helping more Scottish pupils learn a second language such as French, German, Spanish or Chinese in primary school.
“These radical steps aim to increase the numbers of our children and young people gaining qualifications in languages, supporting them to be prepared and ready to flourish in the globalised, multi-lingual world we live in.”
As well as reporting a decline in the numbers of secondary school pupils studying foreign languages to exam level, the British Council report says funding in further and higher education is also under pressure.
“Scottish universities are suffering from severe financial pressures and this has led to fears for the future of language departments at some universities and the viability of lesser taught languages in particular. The most recently available data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) showed that modern language provision in the Scottish further education sector was on the verge of total collapse.”
It suggests industry is losing out because of the skills gap: “Scottish employers tend to circumvent rather than address language skill needs by exporting only to Anglophone countries or those where they can easily find English speakers.” The decline in modern language skills has been noted by business leaders – who say it needs to become a priority if Scotland is to compete in world markets.
CBI Scotland’s senior policy executive, Lauren Paterson, said: “English has become the international language of business – in itself a real benefit for Scotland – but there are enormous advantages for Scottish businesses if some employees have the language skills to communicate with suppliers, customers and officials in their own tongue.”
A spokesman for the SQA said: “Higher remains the gold standard in Scottish schools for candidates wanting to progress to university. We are pleased to see that the entry figures for these courses, particularly Higher French and Higher German, have broadly increased as candidates recognise the value of continuing to study for a modern language qualification beyond S4.”