Alison Kersahw for The Independent, June 21, 2012:
England’s teenagers are lagging far behind their European peers in foreign languages, a major new survey suggests.
It reveals nine in 10 youngsters aged 14 and 15 are unable to communicate their personal interests, experiences and ambitions in a foreign language.
And around four fifths struggle with the basics, such as ordering in a restaurant or asking the way to a train station, according to research by the European Commission.
The Commission warned that the UK has some catching up to do to reach the foreign language abilities of their European neighbours.
The findings show that in England, just 9% of 14 and 15-year-olds studying French met the Council of Europe’s definition of being “an independent language user who can deal with straightforward, familiar matters”.
This means they can write about topics that are familiar or of personal interest to them, and can describe their experiences, dreams, hopes and ambitions and give opinions.
The figure is based on the youngsters’ reading, writing and listening skills in the language.
Across the 14 European countries surveyed, usually where pupils were learning English as a foreign language, 42% of youngsters met this standard on average, the study shows.
In Sweden and Malta, 82% of the age group are at this level, while in France it is 14%.
The study adds that just 22% of pupils are at a level where they can understand sentences and expressions of basic personal information, and communicate in a simple way.
On average, 58% of pupils could do this across the countries surveyed.
A separate opinion poll on attitudes towards languages, also conducted by the Commission, found almost three in four (72%) of people in the UK think everyone in the EU should be able to speak one other language besides their mother tongue.
But just over a third (39%) can actually have a conversation in a foreign language.
This puts the UK close to the bottom of an EU table on languages, with only Hungary and Italy below (35% and 38% respectively).
Education and culture commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said: “The results of the surveys show that the UK has some catching up to do in terms of foreign language learning and also that the UK public recognises that and wants to improve.
“So I am pleased that the UK authorities are giving this a high priority in their programme for school reform and in particular proposing an earlier start to language learning for primary pupils.”
The survey comes just weeks after the Government announced plans to make foreign languages compulsory in primary schools from age seven.
Nine in 10 primaries already teach a foreign language, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: “For school leavers and graduates in England to be able to compete in the global jobs market they need to be competent in at least one foreign language.
“We are determined to give young people the widest opportunities for the future.”