Leader: Decline in language learning a concern

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A FUNDAMENTAL purpose of education is to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities of the wider world. As that wider world becomes ever more intermeshed and interdependent, foreign language learning becomes increasingly important.

Knowledge and familiarity with a language other than our own is a major asset and a door-opening still sought after by our universities, research institutes, leading companies and government departments. So our report today about the decline in the numbers of Scots students studying foreign languages at Higher level should be of concern.

No more than one in ten fifth year pupils are studying a language at a range of levels. And the number of modern language Highers has fallen by almost a quarter over the last 20 years, to just 7,887 last year. The decline in the study of continental European languages such as German and French has been notably steep.

As Sarah Breslin, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, points out, languages can help students with their problem-solving, communication and cross-cultural skills. Derek Duncan, professor of Italian at St Andrews University, describes the decline as “very worrying” and fears that university language departments will not have the numbers of good candidates to choose from, making it harder to bring forward graduates with really excellent language skills.

A notable feature in the statistics is that those studying Highers are coming from private schools. The Scottish Council of Independent Schools reports that, while fewer than 5 per cent of Scottish children are in paid-for education, they accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German, and 18 per cent of Italian.

The introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence in secondary schools from next year should thus be closely monitored to see whether it will be able to help reverse the decline. Most schools plan to “highly recommend” languages until the end of third year. But it is not clear what the impact will be on the uptake at exam level or on the numbers who study languages at university.

Schools report that despite their best efforts, languages came off badly when offered as alternatives to art, drama or a second science. For many young people it may seem that, with the continuing advance of English as the world’s global language, there is less need to learn a foreign language. But as anyone in business will attest, knowledge of a foreign language can be critical in building the UK’s presence in overseas markets and in building long-term business relationships, while in public affairs such knowledge can greatly encourage understanding and rapport.

The Scottish Government needs to ensure that our schools are given every help in arresting this decline and ensure that Scots students are encouraged to take at least one foreign language in their Higher exams.

The train is now easing the strain

Berating the railways has been standard conversational fare for decades. The service is said to be poor, the compartments over-crowded, the tickets expensive. To these, latest industry figures provide a refreshing and welcome antidote. Rail travel has doubled its share of some key cross-border routes.

On west coast main line routes such as Glasgow to Birmingham, rail’s share against air has more than doubled, from 15 per cent in 2006 to one third last year. Between Edinburgh and Birmingham, the proportion of passengers taking the train has shot from 10 per cent to nearly one quarter. And between Edinburgh and London, rail has increased its share by nearly two-thirds, from 17 per cent to 28 per cent.

Rail travel is making a come-back, helped in large measure by faster and more frequent services, railcard offers, discounts on early bookings and the availability of wi-fi. At the same time, air travel has become more expensive and stressful, with many business and older passengers discouraged by security checking with the irksome removal of belts and shoes.

The great rail revival, validated by the resurgence in passenger numbers, is welcome on several grounds. It is good for the environment, good for competition and good for travellers, providing not only greater comfort but a better range and choice of travel.

However, there is always room for improvement and there is much that the rail network has still to do to make the customer experience better – more carriages at peak travel periods, better late night services between major urban centres and a continuing need to bear down on costs. As the figures show, when service is improved, the public responds.