WHEN Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered his address to the French National Assembly last month it received much media attention simply because it was in French, writes Alan Thomson.
This minor linguistic triumph highlighted how poor Britain's language skills are and how painfully obvious this is to everyone abroad.
But a number of initiatives have been or will be launched aimed at shaking the country out of its linguistic lethargy.
The National Languages for Export campaign aims to help the UK's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), firms with under 500 employees, get to grips with the languages and cultures of export markets.
Surveys carried out annually for the Department of Trade and Industry by research company Metremartech reveal the scale of the problem. Of the 500 companies surveyed most recently, only 28 per cent of those employing up to ten people had language skills compared with 72 per cent of those employing more than 500. About two-thirds of the European workforce is employed in SMEs.
Stephen Hagen, dean of the school of languages and European studies at Wolverhampton University, is special adviser to the DTI on the languages for export campaign. Professor Hagen said: "The level of trade lost to British exporters due to language and cultural barriers is estimated at some 12 per cent, that's one in eight deals. Our education system has a major role to play."
Professor Hagen said that language education is failing to address the problems faced by the business world. "The Far East is going to be the power-house of the world economy and our language teaching is still focused on how to buy tickets on the Paris Metro. More people are learning languages but industry is saying it does not have people who are able to learn languages quickly enough or to a high enough standard.
"It is essential that the lifelong learning campaign launched by the government produces people with the capacity to learn new skills."
The DTI's Language in Export Advisory Scheme (Lexas) offers analysis of firms' communication needs. In higher education the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning has recognised the need to improve language teaching and learning. Ten language projects involving about 40 universities will receive a share of Pounds 2.5 million as part of the FDTL's second phase. The projects will run for three years and a European conference is planned for autumn 2000.
The money is provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. The projects will receive support from the government-backed Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT).
Peter Boaks, deputy director of CILT, said that language learning had expanded massively in the higher education sector over the past ten years. But Mr Boaks said: "Provision can vary enormously from institution to institution." CILT is keen to see the introduction of systematic training in teaching practice for language lecturers.
FDTL language projects will cover a number of areas. One, the Translang project, led by the University of Central Lancashire and Anglia Polytechnic University, seeks to give students for whom language learning is a minor part of their course transferable skills.
Project manager Ruth Pilkington, a senior lecturer at Central Lancashire, said language learning teaches students additional skills such as conducting presentations and formal and informal writing.
Rationalisation of language learning and teaching is a priority. This is a key aim of a new study to be carried out by the Nuffield Foundation. Between now and late autumn next year the study will attempt to assess the level of linguistic capability the country will require over the next 20 years. It will also assess to what extent present policies and arrangements meet these needs and what initiatives will be required in the light of the present position.
The foundation says that despite a major uptake in language courses in universities and colleges, this belies the fact that they are having to carry out a lot more remedial language work. Many students now want to take language as part of a non-language degree and the foundation says that there are fewer specialist linguists. CILT also says that fewer specialist linguists tend to go into teaching or lecturing when the economy is doing well.