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Economy: Modern Languages

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 3 December 2009


Moved By

To call attention to the contribution of modern language skills to the United Kingdom economy; and to move for papers.

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this topic today and look forward to hearing from all noble Lords who will be speaking—and, of course, to the Minister's response. It is most fitting that we shall be hearing from possibly the only bilingual government Minister, although I was relieved to discover when I checked the Companion that he will be obliged to use his English rather than his Welsh.

I am proud to be a modern languages graduate myself and I declare an interest as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. The group is supported by CILT, the National Centre for Languages. CILT and others have provided me with a great deal of information for which I am most grateful. I also pay tribute to the work done over many years by the late and much-missed Lord Dearing.

Professor Michael Worton's review of modern language provision in English universities was published last month. He came to the stark conclusion that unless the decline in modern language learning is reversed, anglophone Britons will become one of the most monolingual peoples in the world, with severe consequences for our economy, for business competitiveness, for international reputation and mobility and for community cohesion at home.

English is one of the great world languages, and we benefit enormously from the desire and willingness to learn it on the part of so many other people—as do they—but its prevalence should not be overestimated. Only 6 per cent of the global population are native English speakers and 75 per cent speak no English at all. One telling indicator of the relative influence of English is its declining share of internet traffic. English material on the web has fallen from 51 per cent in 2000 to only 29 per cent in 2009. Over the same period, the amount of material in Chinese rose from only 5 per cent to 20 per cent.

There is much evidence that the operational language needs of employers are not being met and that this is damaging both to competitiveness and to the employability of our young people in particular. Research by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce showed that 80 per cent of English exporters were unable to conduct business in a foreign language and that 77 per cent of them reckoned they had missed or lost business because of it. By contrast, exporters who proactively use language skills, and the cultural knowledge that goes with them, achieve on average 45 per cent more sales. Research by Cardiff University's business school suggests that the UK economy could be missing out on contracts worth up to £21 billion a year because of the lack of language skills in the workforce.

CBI surveys have highlighted the frustration of UK employers. Sixty per cent are dissatisfied with the foreign language skills of school leavers, and I should perhaps say at this point that there is plenty of evidence to show that learning a foreign language greatly reinforces literacy in English too. Over a third of UK businesses want people specifically for their language skills, but increasingly are forced to recruit overseas to meet their needs. Seventy-two per cent of UK international trade is with non-English-speaking countries, but only one in 10 of us can speak a foreign language and only 30 per cent of us say we can even understand a conversation in another language. Three times more French, German and Spanish students go on Erasmus-funded placements abroad as part of their degree than British students, giving themselves a competitive advantage in a global labour market. I hope the Minister will undertake to remind universities to inform all students, not just the linguists, how they may benefit from the Erasmus scheme.

The Foreign Office has reported complaints from some companies bringing inward investment to the UK that they have to source qualified engineers from their home markets because UK engineers do not have the relevant language skills, and a good grasp of the parent company's home language is an important skill they expect from people in technical or management jobs.

French and German are top of the list of languages that employers want but, as new markets open up in the Far East, Central Asia and Latin America, significant numbers also want Mandarin or Cantonese, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Most employers do not require complete fluency. They want conversational ability, which will give a good impression, help to build relationships and make new contacts. Basic language competence is important for retailers, secretaries, receptionists, marketers, transport and healthcare workers and many others. Between now and 2012, when we host the Olympics, we need to be sure we can provide a multilingual service in all these areas, as well as finding 300 specialist translators and interpreters. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will encourage businesses to invest in language training for 2012 and beyond?

The supply of interpreters and translators brings me to another aspect of this debate that I want to raise. There is a chronic shortage of English mother-tongue interpreters and translators at the United Nations and at the European Commission and Parliament. In Brussels, meetings are having to be cancelled because no English interpretation is available. Since the last round of enlargement, demand for native English speakers has increased substantially, but 20 per cent of the Commission's English translators will retire in the next five years and recruitment is slow. In 2007, 70 more were needed but it got only 24. The picture is no better for interpreters, of whom a further 200 to 300 will be needed over the next decade. This crisis must be addressed to prevent further negative impact on the EU's work and before the reputation of the UK in supporting international institutions is undermined.

However, a crisis always brings an opportunity, part of which is the language industry. This August, the first ever study of the size of the language industry in the EU was published. It covers not only interpreting and translating but language teaching, language tools, subtitling and dubbing, web localisation and so on. Many other sectors, as we know, are struggling, but the language industry is in robust health, with an estimated value of €8.4 billion in 2008, which is on target to double to €16.5 billion in 2015. The report makes recommendations to help businesses to seize the opportunities to benefit from multilingual competence. SMEs, for example, are advised against assuming that localising a website into the language of a target country is sufficient to generate sales, and member states are urged to introduce compatible statistical measures to help foreign language planning.

I understand that there will, for the first time, be a question on language in the 2011 census. Will the Minister say what that question will be and how it is expected that the information will be put to good use? Will he also confirm that his department is familiar with this study and will do its utmost to ensure that British businesses and UK citizens are encouraged and enabled to benefit from their fair share of the opportunities and prosperity offered by the language industry?

There is also the important domestic issue of interpreting. Many people are being prevented from working at a level that is commensurate with their skills, and many others are being deprived of the basic human right of knowing what is happening to them when they are at their most vulnerable: in hospital, in court or in a police station. This is because the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting—the DPSI—is in jeopardy. There are about 1,000 candidates a year, and demand has never been higher. Around 50 different languages, combined with English, were on offer in 2009, ranging from the traditional languages of western Europe to the languages of the enlarged EU, such as Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish, the languages of the Indian sub-continent and those of countries that are or have been in conflict, such as Kurdish, Serbian, Pashto and Somali.

However, the courses that teach the diploma are threatened by a lack of funding. The course has been taught in the FE sector with funding allocated by the Learning and Skills Council, but the current priorities of the LSC are for education and training at basic and lower levels. The DPSI is rated as level 6, which is equivalent to an honours degree, and so is losing out. The consequences of this will be insufficient affordable courses and fewer fully qualified public service interpreters against what is already acknowledged as a national shortage. Will the Minister undertake to look again at this and see what can be done about adjusting the funding criteria of the LSC to prevent something from happening that is so much at odds with the Government’s policies on community cohesion and social mobility?

If languages are part of the solution to economic recession, at least a little green shoot is visible in primary schools. Ninety-two per cent now offer some language teaching, and it will be compulsory from 2011, but we really cannot just wait for today’s seven year-olds to come through the system. The Government and the universities must respond positively and quickly to the recommendations of the Worton review. A third of modern language departments have closed in the past seven years, and according to Professor Worton there is a strong sense in the universities that the importance and value of languages are not properly understood either by government or by potential students.

Professor Worton calls on the Government to up the ante on expectations for secondary schools. I hope that the Minister will agree to take this up with his DCSF colleagues, in particular the need to upgrade to a mandatory target the current very vague hope that 50 to 90 per cent of students will take a language until they are 16. We know that this is completely ignored by the vast majority of state schools, which do their pupils a great disservice by excluding them from one of the skills that would maximise their employability.

The principal recommendation for the Government in the Worton review, however, is to upgrade their own messages about the importance of languages and to work with others across all sectors to communicate them. I warmly welcome the announcement that the Minister of State, David Lammy MP, will chair the new forum, in which government, HEFCE, the universities, CILT, schools and employers will all work together on this, but could the Government please be more consistent and remember languages all the time? It is quite astonishing and extremely disappointing that the new national strategy, Skills for Growth, published only two weeks ago, does not contain one single mention of language skills. I hope that I have given enough examples today to convince the Minister that a strategy that says its objectives are economic growth and individual prosperity is seriously incomplete without language skills being integrated into it, and I ask the noble Lord whether he will take urgent action to amend it.

Languages are often forgotten when the so-called strategically important and vulnerable subjects are discussed. Science, technology, engineering and maths always get top billing and I do not seek for one moment to detract from their importance, only to achieve a higher profile alongside them for languages, which have been equally designated within the SIV definition.

Another important message that teenagers, teachers, parents and careers advisers need to hear is the finding of a survey of earnings three and a half years after graduation, which showed that modern linguists earn more than graduates from any other discipline except medics, architects and pharmacologists.

The last message from the Worton review that I want to flag up, and which I would be reassured to know the Minister was prepared to discuss with the universities, is the way in which admissions policies can influence the take-up of languages. I very much regret that my own university, Cambridge, recently abandoned the requirement for all students to have a language qualification as a condition of entry. This was motivated by the desire to widen access, but how much better would it have been to adopt the model agreed by University College, London, which has introduced a language requirement, irrespective of degree subject, with the proviso that students who cannot comply, possibly because their school did not provide or encourage it, must agree instead to undertake a language course during their first year at university. This seems a much more constructive way of underpinning the importance of languages without risking elitism, and it should be applauded and copied.

I believe that every young person in the 21st century will need a measure of modern language competence, whether specialist and learned or basic and conversational, every bit as much as they will need IT skills, English and maths. You could call it a utilitarian asset but it is much more than that. It is also the key to intercultural understanding, to the fun of participation, to the pleasure of literary discovery and the gateway to a more civilised co-existence with other people. I beg to move.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her most excellent and comprehensive speech and, in particular, I second her question about why language skills were omitted from the Skills for Growth strategy.

I declare two interests which may be relevant to this debate. First, I am chairman emeritus of the International Council of the English Speaking Union, and I wish to say something about the role of the English language. Secondly, I am president of the British-German Association, and I wish to refer to German language learning in British state sector schools.

The only area where I may have a slight nuance of difference with the noble Baroness concerns what is happening to the growth of English at present. It is worth reminding ourselves in this debate of the unique position of English as a global language, because it has great relevance to the British economy. The truth is that the four languages in the world spoken by the greatest number of people are, as one might expect, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and English, but of course English is there for a different reason from the others. It is there because of the number of people who are not native English speakers using the language. The number is extraordinary and continues to grow because English has a huge momentum of expansion. To give an example, over 200 million people in China are learning English. Indeed, it is not really possible for anyone to enter a university in China without a foreign language qualification, and over 98 per cent choose English as the language they should learn. That is an enormous driver of English and therefore extremely important.

The international expansion of English began 400 years ago with the first permanent settlement in Jamestown. At the time roughly 3 million people were using the English language globally, mainly in the British Isles and the West Indies, and we are now reaching a figure of something like 2 billion English language users worldwide, with the figure still increasing. It is worth remembering that.

Should we do anything other than rejoice at this phenomenon? Rejoice we should, because if English was not in this position, economically we would be far weaker than we actually are. However, there is a reason for having some reservations and doubts about this. A problem is that the dominance of the English language encourages us to commit an own goal because it encourages us not to bother with other languages. The following story is no doubt apocryphal, but I enjoy it. In the 1950s, a US senator testifying on the Hill about the inadequacy of foreign language learning in American schools was becoming increasingly irritated by his cross-examination. In the end he banged the desk and said, “Gentlemen, if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us”. We must not fall for that sort of folly.

The failure to get to grips with foreign languages has many consequences, and in introducing the debate the noble Baroness focused quite rightly under its terms on some of the economic consequences, but it is also worth referring, as indeed she did briefly, to the cultural impact. I think it was Goethe who said that you cannot possibly understand your own language unless you can speak someone else’s. That remains a profound truth, and the enrichment at the cultural, intellectual and even spiritual levels of being fluent in another or several languages other than English is very great. But, as the noble Baroness pointed out, there is increasing measurement of the economic cost of the relative inadequacy of foreign language learning in Britain. While I cannot add any data, I want to cite one or two examples.

It is particularly dangerous, when travelling in countries within continental Europe where English is highly prevalent—for example, Germany—to assume because people are speaking to you in English, that is their preference and they are saying the same things as they would be saying to you if they could speak in German. I had a good example of that some years ago with the Siemens company when attending a major company seminar in Berlin. The whole seminar was conducted in English. But when I came out during the coffee breaks, everything was happening in German, and I was able to listen to what the Germans were actually saying about the session from which they had just come—which had been held formally in English, even down to the PowerPoint illustrations. Their take on the session was quite different, and that was because of the difference in the language.

I have mentioned that the British-German Association is involved with German language learning in schools. We have a scheme called Youthbridge, which is now active in over 50 schools in England. I should like the Minister to note, because it might be of some practical help, that we have found that by far the most important single initiative in increasing the enjoyment of another language in those schools—in this case German—has been the purchase we carried out of Astra satellite dishes so that the children can get German television. That has shown those children that there is a huge society not many miles away from them which, while indeed a different language is spoken, shares with them a great wealth of experience, variety and lifestyle. That has made the language real in a way that teachers told us would be difficult otherwise to put across.

It is also interesting that Youthbridge receives no government funding; it is funded entirely by British and German companies, which clearly understand its which importance. It is against that background that the decision in 2004, which we debated in this House—I remember expressing dismay at the time—to suspend compulsory foreign language learning after the age of 14 for GCSE was quite clearly a mistake. What has happened since bears that out. The number studying French in British state schools has fallen by more than 30 per cent since 2004. We are now in the ludicrous situation that of the number of children learning foreign languages, only one in 11 is learning German, for example, and one in nine is learning French. That is not good enough. Given the huge economic importance to us of both the German and French markets, that is an own goal that we cannot tolerate.

On the role of English in the European Union, a recent survey showed that 86 per cent of all officials who work for all the institutions in the European Union have English as their preferred second language. It is interesting to me, as an enthusiast of the European Union, that underlying Euroscepticism is a strange combination of insularity and insecurity—and one of the reasons for the insecurity is a feeling that they are not talking our language. However, the truth is that they are talking our language overwhelmingly, certainly within the new member states. So, in the economic and political context, English has a strong position. Of course, the relationship changes if you also are offering the other person’s language.

We should rejoice in the unique position of English but seek the competitive advantage of, in addition, having other languages. If we cannot achieve both, we seriously underplay our own strengths and limit our opportunities. In replying to the debate, I hope the Minister will make clear to the House what the plans are for foreign language learning for over-14s and whether the 2004 decision can be decisively reversed.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on introducing this debate on such an important and relevant subject, particularly as it comes so shortly after the Worton report.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, the ability to speak another language—or, preferably, other languages—is an enormous asset in government, business and all kinds of agencies. One has only to look at the emphasis that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office places on the skill—it requires its entrants to learn the language of the country in which they will be stationed—to realise that it is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, referred to the position in China. When I was in Beijing, I learnt with great interest that 25 per cent of all teaching in all universities in China has to be in English. Such a requirement would shock us in this country, would it not?

I should like to raise, from my experience at both King’s College, London and the University of the West of England in Bristol, two issues regarding the teaching of languages in universities. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised comprehensively the subject of funding, but I want to tie it to a particular issue at King’s College London.

As I am a former vice-chairman of the council at King’s, I consulted its modern languages department, which is one of the oldest language centres in the United Kingdom. It has something like 1,400 undergraduates doing modular courses in addition to their degree course. One-third of them come from the School of Medicine, which I thought was a particularly interesting figure. The centre also offers MA and PhD students an opportunity to take up a language to enhance their research and career prospects. That, however, has to be cross-funded by its external contracts, and the long-term financial sustainability of the project is uncertain. There is general concern at the language centre about the survival of language courses, a concern which is shared by universities across the country.

The second issue is the negative culture, or, perhaps more accurately, the negative perception of the usefulness of modern languages by students generally. I declare an interest as I have been the chancellor of the University of the West of England for the past 16 years. A former polytechnic, it is now a large university with about 30,000 students, with more than 3,000 students from foreign countries. We have agreements with more than 60 international institutions, so there is a major foreign element to our university. The university recognises the importance of languages, particularly for internationalisation and employability.

I asked the vice-chancellor what the approach was to teaching languages at UWE, and I received a very depressing answer. Student demand is small, which may very well be due to the fact that the teaching of languages generally is seen to be done better at the older universities. UWE has offered good courses, including Chinese studies, but it has not received students of sufficient calibre and, with regret, has ceased recruiting from 2009 in French, Chinese studies and Spanish. It continues to offer an MA in translation that is very well supported and one of its highest-recruiting courses. The university therefore intends to continue teaching language teachers and postgraduate translation, and will set up a technical language centre to allow students to take a language module with their degree, very much along the lines of King’s College, London.

Is it not sad that one of the major advantages of a large and successful former polytechnic—the preparation of the student for the workplace—is not being sufficiently accessed by those students who might find themselves at a real disadvantage by not having sufficient foreign language skills? The polytechnics, now the new universities, are particularly good at training for the workplace, and our vice-chancellor is very sad to be stopping those language courses.

It is a sad reflection on a wider student view of the need to learn a language. This view no doubt starts in schools, where languages have played a smaller part than they should have done. I regret to say that, until very recently, that has been encouraged by the Government’s not requiring students over the age of 14 to learn a language. Only 44 per cent of pupils took a language at GCSE in 2009, compared with 76 per cent in 2000. That is a direct result of the non-requirement for languages at GCSE. This feeds into the attitude to learning languages either as a module with one’s degree or for the sake of languages at university, since the majority of students will come from state schools.

We need a change of culture. We need a significant prod from the Government to reverse a worrying trend that will continue to inhibit our economy unless it is checked soon.

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for the excellence of her introduction but also for bringing to our attention this very important problem of jobs and languages. I, too, look forward to my noble friend’s reply, as he specialises in small businesses. I hope that he will say something interesting and sensible about the acute difficulties of small businesses in their failure to have language acquisition and be able to trade across the European Union and wider. My own suggestion is that there should be some form of flying linguist to help small businesses which want to broaden their normal market share.

In 2003, the Government published their national language strategy, which pointed to some of the deficiencies—how too few employees learn languages and too few employers help employees to learn languages. Indeed, only one in four firms organised any form of language training. More recently, the regional development agencies did an audit of such languages and found three out of five firms used at least one language in their daily work, while one in 10 use as many as five. But the significant figure is that one in five of the firms asked demonstrated or said that they had lost business, first, because of poor language skills but, allied to this, because of poor cultural understanding of those to whom they were selling services or goods. This is a point on which I wish to dwell. Of course, having a language is not simply a matter of conversing with someone in another language, to order a beer or whatever; it is the key to cultural understanding and to understanding the market to which you sell goods or provide services. If you fail to understand that, you make failures in providing for such goods and services and therefore reduce the opportunities for jobs.

The most famous faux pas is an old one—but the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, is used to old ones, as well. The previous President Bush went across to Japan with the three chiefs of the car industry and asked the Japanese why they did not buy the gas guzzlers that were habitual in the United States of America. That is entirely attributable to a cultural misunderstanding and a lack of understanding of the Japanese language, through which one understands about the Japanese way of life. We have to repair that, as we see the position now in which Japanese cars are the top sellers in the United States of America.

These views have been confirmed recently by Professor Michael Worton, who came to our All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which has been so well led by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. There is a very important chapter in his report on graduate employability and languages. The report that came out only last month from BIS says that language learning enhances students’ employability and gives a deeper understanding of other ways in which to think and express ideas.

Lord Dykes: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord in the middle of his sentence, but is it not also true that George Bush said on a visit:

“The thing that's wrong with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur”?

Yes, I left that one out, but it is absolutely true as I understand it.

En passant, if I may, there has been much kafuffle this week about the appointment in the European Union, following the passing of the Lisbon treaty—and I am aware that I have two very distinguished colleagues here who associate themselves with the European Union. Is it not an ultimate irony, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, explained in terms of the German example, that our colleagues habitually speak English and often speak many other languages? While Nye Bevan once said that he did not want to be sent naked into the debating chamber on the issue of nuclear bombs, the truth is today that we for the most part send our British representatives tongue-tied into the negotiation chamber. There are few British politicians who have fluency in another language. Indeed, I remember that one of the few with some fluency, Prime Minister Blair, expressed his love and admiration for his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, more in the way of being carnal than fraternal.

One of the excuses already alluded to has been that everyone else in the world speaks English; this has been repudiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. They do not. South America is one example and China has been given as another. China is a huge country and is furiously acquiring English. It may well be that, in time, China will have more English speakers than the United Kingdom, but it will still be a foreign country with many different languages which we ought to make the effort to understand so that we can provide jobs for our people.

When I was a Member of the European Parliament in the 1990s, English was used as a lingua franca, but it was a changing English. This, again, confirms what the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, was saying. We may find English as we know it disappearing. That is all the more reason why we should learn languages: to speak to our colleagues in them.

I say to the Minister that we may need some fresh thinking on these issues. I have a ready example from my wife, a French teacher. In Chester in the 1990s she had the idea, which went against the national curriculum, of recognising that Chester is a tourist town. A tourist town attracts many of our continental colleagues. She had great difficulty teaching her students the literary French of Racine and others, but had the idea of providing them with job skills so that they spoke a number of languages and could therefore be employable within the shops and services of Chester. To this day, however, you still do not see “Man spricht Deutsch” or “Si parla Italiano” in any Chester outlets, which would at least be an encouragement for people to come into the shops with the knowledge that they can speak their own language and get served properly. We must do more there.

We must also do more about the informal acquisition of language. Again, I go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, said about German TV. It is difficult for our young people to acquire the skills, or be encouraged to learn them. Pop music is in English; films and TV programmes are in English. It would be good if we had some influence in this country over what is done on the continent to encourage our young people and show them that there is something worthwhile in that.

We should recognise the contribution of the languages within our own country. We scorn Welsh. We should not scorn a vibrant language. We should take advantage of those from the sub-continent. It is a huge market, and we should acquire the languages that are already here.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on having invited the noble Lord, Lord Coe, to speak to our All-Party Group on the 2012 Olympics and the challenge of languages there. We have something like 300 foreign languages being spoken within London. Let us take advantage of them, and ensure that they help and contribute to improving the skills of our young people with a view to recognising that there is a direct link between jobs and language acquisition.

My Lords, I, too congratulate my noble friend Lady Coussins on securing this debate, particularly with its emphasis on the link between languages and the economy. That is not to minimise the importance of languages and culture, but today we are focused on languages and the economy.

Sadly, we have had a period of decline in this country in the past decade. Perhaps the underlying reason is a failure to appreciate that language learning is not some luxury consumption good but a fundamental requirement in a knowledge economy, more urgently needed than it used to be in a globalising world.

I have to declare a couple of interests, and noble Lords will see why: first, as chair of the Nuffield Foundation and, secondly, as a past president of the British Academy and the National Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences.

In 1998 the Nuffield Foundation established an expert group, jointly chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd, to report on language learning and its importance to the economy and to working life; this is not a new topic. Its 2000 report, Languages: the Next Generation, was generally quite optimistic. A language GCSE had been successfully introduced as a universal requirement, although students were rather often exempted from it, particularly in certain schools in certain regions. It remained to improve the pedagogy to make more language learning more fun, and to recognise that this was an economically vital skill. The central message of the report remains important:

“Capability in other languages—a much broader range than hitherto and in greater depth—is crucially important for a flourishing UK. The scale of what needs to be done has become ever more striking … At the moment, by any reliable measure we are doing badly. We talk about communication but don’t always communicate. There is enthusiasm for languages but it is patchy. Educational provision is fragmented, achievement poorly measured, continuity not very evident”.

The most fundamental finding was that the UK workforce suffered from a chronic shortage of people at all levels with usable language skills. Companies increasingly needed personnel with technical or professional skills plus another language, and often their only option was to recruit native speakers of other languages. Mobility of employment was in danger of becoming the preserve of people from other countries. The report was written in 2000, yet throughout the past decade a large number of well-paid jobs in the City, in business and in other sectors have gone to people not educated in the UK. It is clear that we need to do better.

The point of the Nuffield languages inquiry was to set out how we might do just that. Its recommendations were practical and to some extent still familiar: a national strategy, an earlier start, putting an end to the situation at that time where nine out of 10 gave up language study at age 16, providing a broader sixth-form education and improving teacher supply and accreditation.

No one who read that report could have anticipated that the Government would soon abolish the hard-won GCSE language requirement in 2003. In effect, they chose not to do things better but to do less. I suspect that this has been the single most striking piece of educational vandalism—I am sorry to say that—inflicted on the young people of this country by a Government who have claimed to be, and indeed have been, keen on education. It was a major own goal.

The one recommendation acted on was the introduction of primary language learning, inaccurately spoken of from the start as an “entitlement”. It has hitherto been no such thing; rather, it has been a patchwork of variable provision—sometimes enthusiasm on the part of amateurs, sometimes genuine teaching and progression. What exactly will children in England, who will soon become entitled to language learning in primary school, be entitled to? What plans do the Government have for the lost generation who did not do more than three years of language learning?

Primary language teaching did not address the problem of transition to secondary, which remains unresolved, while beyond secondary level, as other noble Lords have said, the picture is one of dramatic decline. Lord Dearing’s 2007 languages review reported that between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of pupils taking a language in the 14-16 age group in maintained schools fell from around 80 per cent to 50 per cent—well below 50 per cent for boys, and declining since then. The damage runs through the supply chain. Fewer school pupils lead on to fewer language students, while there has been closure of the honours degrees in many universities and a decline in available language teachers. The supply of linguistically competent people, who could export as well as import, was reduced.

Language learning is like learning maths: it is cumulative, there are wrong answers, and high marks may be a bit harder to get. We all know that making maths optional at GCSE would be catastrophic for the skills of those entering the labour market, and many of us believe passionately that the practice of giving up maths after GCSE is also damaging to a vast range of careers, far beyond the STEM subjects. The practice of giving up languages at age 14 and then further at 16 is also damaging to the skills base, yet we not merely permit but incentivise pupils to do so—and we incentivise schools to encourage that by making the number of GCSE passes a performance indicator for schools.

The British Academy returned to these topics in 2008, after warnings from senior academics in a number of fields that British-educated researchers were no longer adequately prepared for research in many disciplines, or for international collaboration. That loss of competitiveness parallels what has happened in many other lines of work. In its report Language Matters, published in June, the British Academy noted that globalisation is leading to increased,

“demand for language skills in non-language-based … disciplines”,

as research is more international and uses comparative methods, and it studies,

“non-Anglophone parts of the world”.

At present, UK universities are major and successful players, whose recruitment of overseas students represents a major economic benefit to our economy. That is being eroded by loss of competitiveness, and this is one of its sources.

At present university departments are, like the City of London, addressing the skills shortage by buying in the skills that they need from those educated abroad, not by seeking UK researchers and academics to upskill. I believe that universities could do more, and could permit students who arrive without language competence to take an intercalated year to work abroad learning a foreign language. It would be cheap, and many students would benefit from it in many ways. However, while universities are judged on the speed with which they get students from matriculation to graduation, little will change.

What do the Government plan to do to enable and encourage universities to address the employment needs of their students by encouraging more study abroad? Can the Minister also explain what the Government are doing to encourage and promote language competence among civil servants and beyond the FCO? None of this is new, and all of it is remediable. The remedies are not even particularly expensive. If we really mean what we say about building a high-skill knowledge economy, language learning is one competence that we need to support. All that we need is a will to change, some leadership and some co-ordination.

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow my noble friend Lady O’Neill, a distinguished academic who has made a powerful speech with which I entirely agree. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Coussins on introducing this subject; she is a distinguished linguist and, as has already been pointed out, the founder of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which she leads very successfully.

Fifty-four years of my life have been involved with Latin America, including six years living in different countries. I did not read languages at Cambridge; in fact, I was an engineering student and arrived in Latin America unprepared. It was a steep and quick learning curve, and I quickly discovered that to understand the people properly you need to speak their language, including all the nuances that are often lost in translation. I can therefore also endorse what my noble friend has said about the value of this in doing business. It proved very beneficial in my case as time went on and I understood the language; I was able to win certain deals because I knew the people better and understood them better than my competitors.

Some people have made jokes about translation. I am reminded of the Irishman who was asked how he would translate “mañana”. He said, “I’m afraid we have no word for that sense of urgency”. As has already been said, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, but it is not an international language. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, the largest international language is English, but it is often a second language. My research reveals that Spanish is the second most-spoken language as a mother tongue, followed at a great distance by Portuguese. The whole continent of Latin America speaks Spanish, except Brazil and the three Guyanas. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, Portugal and several African ex-colonies.

Interestingly, some 20 to 25 per cent of the population of the USA speak Spanish as a first language. This dates back to the time when what are now California, New Mexico and Texas were all part of Mexico. They were lost to the US following the Mexican-American war from 1845 to 1847. Given the large and growing percentage of the USA, including Florida, that speaks Spanish, it would seem that la Reconquista is well in hand.

I am glad to hear that Spanish and Portuguese are established subjects in the curriculum in British schools and universities, although not nearly sufficiently or adequately so, as several speakers have said. I am sure that the noble Lord who is to reply will deal with this. I hope that he will, although I have no specific questions for him on this subject.

In the United Kingdom, Canning House is the institution in London which represents and focuses on Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula and where they meet each other. In this context, I declare a considerable interest, since it is an institution with which I have been involved in an honorary capacity for many years. Canning House does not currently run Spanish courses; this is done very adequately by the Institute of Cervantes in London. It holds classes in Brazilian Portuguese at four levels, from beginners to advanced. It also has a very popular annual essay competition in Spanish and Portuguese. These activities at Canning House are extremely valuable and make a useful contribution.

I realise that Latin America is an area of the world that is not of much interest to the Government at present; I hope that will be reversed in the future, but it is the subject of another debate, on trade. I still hold the view that Spanish and Portuguese are very valuable languages. I am glad to have been involved in the debate and I thank my noble friend Lady Coussins for bringing this subject to our attention.

My Lords, I feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness from these Benches. I would not be here if the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, had not kindly written to me to ask me to substitute for someone more capable. All my life, I have been known as a Snopake speaker. You get invited rather late—maybe two weeks before—to speak at a dinner. Then you see the Snopake on the menu and you scratch it to see whose name is underneath. Every time, it has been someone far more important than me. Therefore, when I speak in this House I have to take inspiration from others, usually the right reverend Prelates.

That is where I will begin today. Yesterday I said to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, “There was a debate on education not long ago when one of the right reverend Prelates said that he had majored in dead languages. What is a dead language?”. I thought that it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, partly because, like the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, we supported a mission in Portsmouth. I was also a naval rating in Portsmouth—a Pompey rating. Indeed, it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. The right reverend Prelate said that “dead” languages are not necessarily dead. Beside me I have a list of 110 dead languages. The distinction between dead and extinct languages is important and very real. An extinct language is one that is never used, let alone spoken.

The question, therefore, is how many languages there are in the world. My advisers in the Library—occasionally I can beat them—tell me, from the records, that there are 7,000 languages in the world. Many are extinct. Many, of course, are used for academic purposes only. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, quoted the figure that approximately 2 billion to 3 billion people are learning English, speaking English or thinking of learning it. Therefore, English is a very powerful language. For me, as a Scot, to say that is extremely worrying. We are, of course, descended from the Norse. As your Lordships will know well, the Norse word “mö”—with a diaeresis—means “begotten of”. I am a McEacharn—begotten of the horse and a sword maker.

I find that, in general, the ladies in my family seem to marry Latin lovers. Sometimes they might have been called sleeping dictionaries. In my arguments with my Italian indirect cousins, I managed to prove conclusively in Florence about 15 years ago that Machiavelli was Scottish—the son of the devil. What I am trying to say is that learning languages should be fun. It should not be a struggle. First you need a map of the world, such as I give to my grandchildren. On it, there are dots and rivers—the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Brahmaputra and all the rivers of the world. It is down those rivers—and, of course, across the seas—that knowledge goes first. If you are to try to encourage people to learn, you have to make it fun.

I have had many dealings with Albania. The Albanians are highly intelligent people. As your Lordships will know, they have 50 per cent more letters in their alphabet than anyone else. I have argued with them that if you have to have a lot of letters you are not very intelligent. In Albania I have also found that many people speak Mandarin and Chinese, because from 1957 onwards the Chinese were there and the Albanians learnt those languages. I also found this in Sudan and the rest of Africa. The Chinese provided cultural support, building colleges and conference centres. As people get interested in trade, so their culture expands.

All the native American languages were effectively replaced by colonial languages, such as Portuguese, English, French and Spanish. This has happened in most of the world. Coptic was replaced by Arabic. If we, a colonial power that managed to extend its interests throughout the world with the Commonwealth, now find that our economy is failing, perhaps English may start to be less and less important. It is a worry that I have. English is a very difficult language to understand now, because many of the words have been bastardised and the Latin or Greek origins have gone. Latin and Greek are not dead languages—or not extinct—because they are used for cultural purposes. Any language, be it Sanskrit or any other, that has a cultural purpose becomes an important part of life.

Let me explain this with another bit of religion. Not so long ago I became involved with another bishop: I was asked whether I would talk about languages to the students of Bishop Thomas Grant School. I thought that talking to schools might be part of the outreach project. About 15 per cent of the 1,000 pupils at the school do not speak English at home. So you suddenly say, “Wait a moment, maybe we need to teach a modern language called English in our own country”. I found myself in a room with a Jeremy Paxman-like character, with a microphone thrust at me, being videoed while discussing the importance of languages. I had to speak in German and French, although they wanted me to speak in Italian as well, which was not quite so good. Three of the people involved were quite brilliant. I asked them to write to me about the discussion. Laura wrote a nice letter saying that she was from the Congo and spoke Congolese and French.

The point that I am coming to is that we should make modern languages something that people enjoy doing in school because the lateral thinking that comes with them is extremely important. I have traded around the world and found that the misunderstandings are very great. I used to work in eastern Europe; the UK and the Ukraine are next door to each other in the alphabet, which is how I got involved in the Ukraine. Albania is the original name for Scotland—“Alba”, or the white people. The Norsemen went across the North Sea. I think that Greenland Norse died out in the 16th century, but the Norsemen also went down through the Black Sea and came right along the Mediterranean—probably they were Jason and the Argonauts—and arrived up in Ireland. When they arrived there, the Irish Scots, as they were called, said, “You can stay for a bit. We don’t have any women to give you, but we’ll lend you some”, and they went across to the Kingdom of Albanactus in the north, which was called Albania. When you start to talk to people about this, they get maps out and say, “Where did this word come from? Where did this language come from?”. I used to get mixed up between etymology and entomology, and anything else ending in “ology”, until I realised that the suffix was probably Greek. In the confusion of my own mind, I realised that languages are extremely important. However, they should not be called modern languages; they are a form of learning, a form of general knowledge. When I watch “University Challenge”, I get embarrassed if I cannot get more than one in three answers.

What about two countries separated by a common language, such as the United States and ourselves? What about incidents that have occurred in the Middle East, which the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, will know of? We had a wonderful ambassador, Sir James Craig. Whenever there were meetings, the King of Saudi Arabia used to insist that Sir James, who could tell the most hilarious jokes in Arabic, should be his official interpreter. When Coptic was replaced by Arabic, we forget the importance of that in the world.

I cannot resist going back to a point that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, about Mr Bush, who asked why the French do not have a word for “entrepreneur”. If you translate it correctly—I am known as an entrepreneur in France—it means an undertaker; someone who undertakes something, like an Unternehmer in Germany. But if you translate the word back into English, it means something slightly different; it means dead things. If you translate the English “undertaker” into French, you get “croque-mort”—an old crock, perhaps like your Lordships’ House. There are two types of old crock. Undertakers would bite the toe of the deceased to see whether the deceased was dead, as many people wanted their veins cut to make sure that they were not buried alive. They would bite the toe and say “croque-monsieur” if it was a madame and “croque-madame” if it was not. This is the fun of a language. Everybody in France who is self-employed is an entrepreneur. We need a bit of fun in language teaching.

My Lords, how on earth do I follow that? I nevertheless will try.

Like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on her speech, on initiating the debate and on chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which over the past year and a half has given us a number of extremely interesting meetings with professional linguists and educators, all of whom have given us an insight into some of the valuable work being done to propagate a better understanding of the benefits which a study of languages, both classical and modern, bring to British society and to Britain’s place in the global economy.

Before I speak about modern languages, I should perhaps declare an interest in that I come from a family consisting very largely of clergymen, classical schoolmasters and other teachers. I admit to being a strong proponent of the teaching of two of the dead languages in the list of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, Latin and Greek, first as an intellectual exercise giving access to some of the great literature of the ancient world; secondly, as an invaluable tool towards the learning of Romance languages; thirdly—as I discovered when the Foreign Office sent me to Lebanon in the 1950s to learn Arabic—towards the learning of other unrelated, but difficult, languages; and, fourthly, as a help for English speakers towards an understanding of our own language, spelling and grammar, quite apart from understanding the large number of words of classical origin still in daily use by our doctors, lawyers, scientists, astronomers, botanists and ornithologists, to name but a few.

But it is not classical languages that we are debating today. I should perhaps declare one further interest in that my late aunt was the only lecturer in the Igbo language at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a relationship which won me serious brownie points when I was head of the Foreign Office and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth was Chief Emeka Anyaoku, an Igbo.

What I want to concentrate on in this brief intervention is to counter the widely believed fallacy that because English—or should I say American?—is now the lingua franca in much of today’s world, we have no need to study, or use, other modern languages. This lazy and complacent misperception, that a knowledge of English is enough for all transactions, economic, commercial, financial, cultural, intellectual and even diplomatic, may, to some extent, be a legacy of colonial arrogance, but it ignores the fact that, however well our foreign friends speak and understand our language, we cannot hope properly to understand them, or to do effective business with them, if we do not have at least a grounding in their languages; a point well illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond. As the world economy becomes more and more dominated by Asia, and as the influence of the United States declines, business in the Far East is going to rely increasingly on an understanding of China and Japan, and an ability to speak, and understand, their languages.

As a retired diplomat, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the highest standards of language training still apply not only to our Diplomatic Service but to the public service as a whole. With the inauguration this week of the External Action Service in the European Union, our success in gaining influential positions in the European public service will increasingly require fluency in other European languages, at least to the very high standard of English enjoyed by our French, German and other European colleagues.

I believe that by ignoring the importance of modern languages we are dangerously underskilling our young people in this country, and that we risk excluding them from the increasingly global enterprise. While large numbers of overseas students study in Britain, our students are finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage of such schemes as Erasmus, or to undertake part of their course in another country in Europe. In a situation where it is no longer compulsory for a potential student to take even one foreign language at GCSE level, and where the proportion of British students taking a modern language in their GCSEs has fallen from about three-quarters before 2004 to less than half now, our young will face serious disadvantages in nearly every marketplace in the world.

Government claims to give advantages to the disadvantaged ring hollow when mathematics and modern languages are being dumbed down in our schools. With only 3 per cent of university students taking a language degree in 2008, the dangers for Britain’s place in the global economy are serious. Our compatriots are already less competitive linguistically in the marketplace than their peers from Germany, China or Brazil. I hope that the Government will address this problem with the attention it deserves.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness on obtaining this debate. It has been very useful and was magnificently led in her opening remarks. I welcome Professor Worton’s review of modern languages in higher education in Britain. I should declare two interests. First, I am on the board of the UK-Japan 21st Century Group, which is a non-governmental forum bringing together business people, journalists, scholars, diplomats, politicians and others with a keen interest in developing UK-Japan relations. The group was founded by Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1984, held its 25th anniversary meeting in Tokyo this year and will be holding its annual meeting in the UK in March next year.

UK-Japan relations continue to be strong, warm and mutually beneficial. Japan is the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP equivalent to 50 per cent of that of the whole of Asia. The United Kingdom provides a strong base for Japanese companies here, the majority of which have their regional headquarters in London, and something in the order of 1,400 Japanese companies have a UK presence. An often-quoted statistic is that, although Japan has only 2 per cent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s research and development. It is an enormously important country. Learning Japanese and maintaining strength in Japanese languages, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, observed, is important and dear to my heart.

Secondly, I am on the international advisory board of the White Rose East Asia Centre, which comprises the schools of east Asian studies in the Universities of Leeds and of Sheffield and the Centre for International Business at the University of Leeds, which is one of the centres funded under the Language-Based Area Studies Initiative to undertake research and training in both Chinese and Japanese languages and in broader area studies.

My remarks are principally about university-level teaching and research. It is important to know not merely who is learning languages but who is learning to teach them. Where are the researchers to take forward the research? It is enormously important that there should be not only research by secondary sources but research in the original languages. Even with the important area initiatives, we in the UK have a tiny number of university academics who will be the next generation of researchers and the next generation of teachers of the teachers. I am greatly concerned that, at this time of cutbacks, there will be cuts in universities. Along with many other parts of the public sector, universities are going to have a difficult time in the next few years. I hope very much that the area initiatives will not only be maintained, at the very least, but also be further strengthened.

The number of students in the United Kingdom graduating in Chinese, for example, remains small. In the past academic year, there were just over 1,000 single and joint honours students in Chinese at English universities. That represents some 250 a year on four-year courses, which includes a year spent in China. As about half of those are single honours students, probably only between 125 and 130 people graduate with top-level skills in Chinese and thoroughly understand China. Those figures are tiny compared with the size of China.

Professor Tim Wright of Sheffield University told me that Slovenia, which has a population of 2 million, has as many students studying Chinese as the United Kingdom does. Several Italian universities have enrolments in Chinese of more than 1,000. We can talk about the importance of languages, but unless we start to put figures on what is happening we will be deluding ourselves. Our current efforts are puny. It is important that the Government have recognised this, but it is not only the Government who have been slow to recognise the scale of the need.

The failure to get anywhere near recognising the huge step-change required is illustrated in the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s recent allocation of PhD scholarships. For the five years from 2009 to 2013, the council will issue slightly fewer than 3,000 PhD scholarships. Of those—for an area covering China, Japan, India and the whole of south-east Asia, more than half the world’s population—only 13 will be doctoral students studying Asian languages and culture. That is not good enough, and I very much hope the Minister will look at it carefully. These are difficult matters. I recognise why 255 doctorates are awarded in philosophy and 174 in archaeology; those are important subjects. However, it is just not good enough for only 13 students out of 3,000 to be studying the languages of half the world.

While on the subject of Chinese, and rather more positively, I draw noble Lords’ attention to the recently formed Association of Speakers of Chinese as a Second Language, a not-for-profit voluntary body set up to provide support for people learning Chinese. Once you have learnt Chinese, or any language, it is important to keep it up, particularly if you have not been using it; and even when you are, it is important to be able to network and build on relationships. I strongly recommend that noble Lords look on the association’s website. The organisation wants to establish a series of short internships with companies working in China for graduates to enable them to make that important transition from learning the language to really understanding the culture. As many noble Lords have said, it is especially valuable to understand the culture of societies as well as the language. I hope that the website catches your Lordships’ attention.

Not only the “real” specialists—the single honours and joint honours people at universities—are important in this; so, too, are the language centres which are growing in universities. At one time the language centres taught English to foreign university students; now they are increasingly teaching foreign languages to English university students. There have been some petty jealousies between language centres and the researchers—the “real” university people. I am pleased to say that that is not the case at Leeds, my old university, but I am aware that it is a problem in some places. Language centres are terribly important, and I echo those who strongly commend UCL on its initiative. All universities should follow this lead. I shall strongly urge the University of Leeds to say, “Either you have a GCSE in a foreign language before you come here, or you do the equivalent exam in the first year”. That can and should be done, and it would be a very small step to take.

I conclude by sharing with the House an e-mail I received from someone who has been working in China for most of the past 25 years. I asked him whether he had any observations about the debate, and he said that, in 25 years, he had noticed two things about working in China:

“Britain puts itself at a disadvantage in China because few of us speak the language well. Inability to work in Chinese means a loss of respect in Chinese colleagues/partners eyes, a lack of alacrity in seizing new opportunities, difficulties in building up all important networks of friends and contacts and the closing off of large swathes of experience. … When British do master Chinese well, they can be very successful here … There are many examples of this. They also tend to promote our national brand very effectively. Many of these people have built up their own businesses here from nothing—proving that the Chinese market isn't so tough if you are equipped to handle it. … Thus if we as a country wish to really engage with the fastest growing economy in the world, there is no better way of doing it than training our young people to speak Chinese and operate independently in a Chinese context”.

In that context, I hope the Minister will look again at the issue of 13 of 3,000 doctoral scholarships being available for study in this subject in our universities.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on gaining this debate and on her truly comprehensive opening speech. As many have said, it is clear that in today’s global world businesses must operate overseas, and to do that effectively their employees should have a working knowledge of the local language. Such skills are becoming increasingly rare because of a decline in the teaching of modern languages, especially in the final years of schooling. That decline is perhaps the most serious consequence of the narrowness of England's secondary and tertiary education, enforced by the requirements of our A-level-based system. I have been concerned about that enforced narrowness for many years and have laid out my views in several places, including in my Higher Education Policy Institute lecture delivered in 2005 and in my speech in the debate in this Chamber on the Science and Technology Select Committee's report on Science Teaching in Schools in 2007. The problem persists.

I was talking to a friend only yesterday who was telling me that his daughter, who is very clever, was in tears over the fact that she was being forced to choose between science and mathematics and the arts and humanities at the age of 15. She had taken several languages in her GCSEs but was going to have to abandon several of them and give up mathematics if she was to take the arts and humanities A-level track. We are the only nation that I know of which encourages students to do that, and it is wrong. Certainly some schools offer the international baccalaureate but the number of schools doing so does not seem to be increasing and remains a minority. I will celebrate if the Minister tells me that I am wrong on this. There have been attempts by examination boards to introduce broader curriculae but significant progress in this direction is lacking.

As many have said, the study of a modern language is of great benefit to students. First, it gives them a skill which can help their subsequent employers to maintain global competitiveness; secondly it gives them an appreciation of the culture of other nations; and, thirdly, they gain a better understanding of the structure and vocabulary of English. Students are well aware of these benefits as I can illustrate by telling you about the success of the programme of language teaching in the Department of Engineering in Cambridge. I declare my interest as a past head of that department and subsequently as vice-chancellor of the university. In the mid-1990s, while I was head of the department, several of us decided that we should try to put right the wrongs of the A-level system and offer undergraduate engineers the chance to study French or German, initially on a voluntary basis and with no credits offered towards their degrees. We were fortunate in managing to raise external funds to support the project. Of course, there was no money in the system. The majority of our intake had taken two maths and physics at A-level. We did this because we felt that it would open up the possibilities of student exchange with German and French universities, give the students the ability to read German and French technical literature, and offer broader employment opportunities. We had hoped that 10 to 20 per cent of the first-year students might be interested but more than 60 per cent signed up for the courses.

Last week, I contacted Professor Dame Ann Dowling, the present head of department, to get an update on the programme 15 years on. This was provided for me by Dr Alex White, who is chairman of the Cambridge University Engineering Department Language Unit. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, mention a similar unit at UCL. Dr White sent me the annual report prepared by the unit's director Casimir D'Angelo. Let me give you a few details. The unit now offers French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese, and is developing a programme of self-taught courses in languages such as Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi, Swedish and Portuguese. A total of 775 students registered this year—up from 751 last year—and 600 took language courses or participated in third or fourth-year language projects. The rest were overseas research students studying English as a foreign language. The students now come from across the university. There were chemists, materials scientists, chemical engineers, computer scientists and even three MIT students who are on exchange from MIT: 168 took French, 90 German, 128 Japanese, 108 Spanish, and 60 Chinese. So the programme thrives and student interest is sustained and expanding, not thanks to national education policies but through independent initiative; even this programme would be more successful if more of the students gained language skills at a younger age.

If students are certain that they want to specialise in the arts and humanities or in STEM subjects in their pre-university studies, they should be able to do so but they should be advised that it would be better if they kept their options open and maintained breadth until their abilities and interests have had more time to develop. It is also interesting to note that many of the world's leading universities encourage, and even require, that breadth is maintained in undergraduate degrees. I cite the new model successfully established at my alma mater Melbourne University, which now offers just six new-generation undergraduate degrees in which students choose 25 per cent of their courses from areas other than the core disciplines of their degree. Languages are, of course, one of the options. The second example is MIT, where all students are required to meet a humanities, arts and social science—or HASS—requirement and modern languages are among the most popular options.

I would argue that in today’s global world, knowledge of a second language should be a primary requirement of everyone’s education and that we should re-examine the structure of our secondary education to achieve that aim.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Coussins for launching this debate. It is a very necessary topic for discussion. Of course, it is possible and indeed desirable to favour greater language skills and to be keen on a wider use of the English language. I give special thanks to the memory of the Indian princess, Pocahontas, who saved the first English-speaking settlement in North America. She is probably the greatest single contributor to the worldwide use of English. Our history is a little surprising at times.

I declare an interest as a former Secretary-General of the European Commission. I was the first British Secretary-General of the European Commission, which has a large translation service and a large interpretation service, both of outstanding quality—in my view, the best in the world. I was privileged to work with them for many years. It is true, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, that they are currently under pressure in relation to native English-speaking interpreters and translators. It is getting more difficult for them, but they still offer a magnificent service.

Today, although I draw on my personal experience of speaking and working for many years in or with many foreign languages, I intervene strictly within the terms of the debate: the contribution of modern language skills to the UK economy. As others have said, that includes education, which is the pathway to the acquisition of those skills for work or for life.

I shall make three brief points. First, I certainly do not want to restrict my comments to the European languages, although I dealt with them every day for many years. My office was capable of handling 11 European languages every day of the year. On the contrary, the changes in our society brought about by immigration and the presence of speakers of so many foreign languages here is a resource from which we can draw much greater benefit for the economy and for improved integration in our society. It is perhaps difficult for those of us not closely involved with education to know how much our schools, while teaching English to non-English-speaking students, do or do not encourage non-English speakers to see their language as a real asset, potentially making them more employable, and sometimes encouraging others to learn some of their language.

It is quite clear that within our ethnic communities, we have an immensely rich resource of languages, such as the Indian languages, Chinese, Arabic, the Middle Eastern and African languages, Cypriot Greek, Turkish and Portuguese, to name only a few. Sometimes, we forget what a large number of speakers of those languages are present in our schools and our society. We could make much better use of them.

On behalf of this House, I attended the funeral and memorial service for the late Lord Chan some years ago. It was amazing to see Liverpool Cathedral filled to the doors with Chinese-speaking persons—many of them British citizens—and to hear the funeral service conducted in two languages. We sometimes forget what a big resource we have and we do not make enough use of it.

Secondly, I have the impression that languages are seen in our schools as a difficult subject—like physics—more appropriate to the brightest student. That discourages some students from taking modern languages. They get the wrong impression that it is a very difficult subject, whereas, in reality, that is not so. A specific characteristic of language is that it must be listened to. My experience of working with people who speak or understand many languages—11 when I was working in the European Commission—is that some learners achieve language skills much more quickly than others because they have a good ear or they listen more effectively. There are people with natural ability to pick up languages; that is clear. Those people achieve language skills almost effortlessly—they are like a bilingual baby, frankly. It is also true that for some schoolchildren, that mastery of another language can be a source of great pride, which is very important to those boys and girls at school, even if they are not very successful in other subjects. It gives them a boost. Identifying natural learners in that subject is important.

If, like me, you travel on the tube a lot, you see hundreds and hundreds of children every day with plugs in their ears listening to Arctic Monkeys, Robbie Williams and the like. Is it too fanciful to think that it might be a good idea if a few of them were listening to Spanish for beginners? Some children learn very quickly and would be beyond the beginners’ stage very quickly if they did that. That would improve their life chances. We know that many parents’ preferred language for their children to learn is Spanish—no doubt for holiday reasons but, like other widely spoken languages, Spanish can help the economy and activity worldwide.

Thirdly, it is clear that many companies must have available to them people with an understanding of a foreign language or languages—for example, in the import or export trade or other more difficult operations, such as franchising abroad, which are difficult to organise, so you need people who understand the language well.

I have heard it said recently—this has been commented on here—that some companies take the view that it is not necessarily worthwhile to employ a foreign-language speaker because they can always find a bilingual English and foreign language speaker in the country with which they will deal, thanks to the education systems in those other countries, which prove to be rather good in many cases. I do not dispute that there can be circumstances when that is a very good way to do business, but a medium-term objective for our economy should still be to have enough people with a working knowledge of widely used foreign languages, so that any company could easily find efficient employees with this extra skill—it is an extra skill, but it is not difficult to obtain.

I believe that that is a realistic objective and should run through how we look at our education system for modern languages and how modern language speakers are incorporated into the economy, the work of our companies and other organisations with overseas interests.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and to your Lordships, because until last night I had not realised that I would be available to be in the House today. I will be very brief in speaking in the gap. I hope not to be too autobiographical, but in 1954, at the age of 15, I was told that I was not qualified—I think that “too stupid” was put in brackets—to attempt O-level in science. Already I was pushing through Latin and Greek as part of my curriculum at school. French was part of the curriculum too, but I was lucky in 1954 to start learning German. One of the tutors admitted that much of O-level French taught to young boys in the 1950s was a question of a dog jumping through hoops and learning verbs one to 33. That is how I might have looked at it. I hope that the noble Baroness, and others of your Lordships who have added enormously to our debate in your Lordships' House today, will think of one noble Lord, who has been in your Lordships' House for more than 40 years.

The noble Baroness might think of looking at the teaching of languages—not just modern languages, as my noble friend said—top-down. Many of your Lordships have stressed that when people come to use languages at university, it is part of a discipline. I was awarded a place at Oxford. In my first year studying politics and economics, I had to study a language. I will shock your Lordships by saying that the subject was L'Ancien Régime, written by Alexis de Tocqueville. I was nothing if not a cynical young man from Scotland, so I did not need necessarily to grind through the French—I read the English translation and they were pleased enough.

As a result of much of my studies at Oxford and outside, I began to look at sport. I discovered that there is a daily French sporting paper. I have a copy here, but it is improper for me to read from it in your Lordships' House. I wonder whether the noble Baroness and, indeed, the Minister might consider looking at modern languages from the bottom up by using organs such as L’Équipe—that means “the team” in French. It covers every aspect of sport. I wonder whether one could use sport in any language—French, German or Italian—to captivate the minds of young people for whom, like for me when I was 15, a foreign language is something of a discipline whereas, with sport, it is a pleasure. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, who spoke earlier, touched on that. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness and to your Lordships for allowing me to express a small, quiet, second voice from the Conservative Benches.

My Lords, the House has to express very warm thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for raising this subject today. I think I am right in saying—I am happy to be corrected if I am inaccurate, but I have not had time to rush out and do the research in the Library—that there has not been an important debate in this House on language learning in Britain for more than 10 years. That is well before I was a Member, so I could be incorrect, but I am pretty sure that that is right. In recent years, there have been some fierce exchanges at Question Time about the lamentable decision of the Government to weaken language learning and the teaching of languages to pupils in state and other schools and about the strange notion that they should be dropped in secondary schools so that, when they were later made compulsory in primary schools, there were not enough teachers to do the teaching.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, must be one of the foremost experts on modern languages in this country, let alone in this House, and we appreciate what she said. This is one of those debates that is a bit like, “Aren’t good weather and apple pie wonderful?”, because it is very easy to agree with everything that has been said. However, in my case that is literally true: I agree with everything that has been said, including the request to the Minister to give some persuasive replies today because millions of sensible people in this country are anxious about the neglect of languages. The only Member who puzzled me a bit, because I could not follow all the comments he made, was the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon. None the less, he made an interesting speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Wright, who is no longer in his place—I hope he returns for the rest of the debate, as is the normal custom—is a famous and distinguished diplomat and was a very distinguished head of the Foreign Office for many years. He reminded me that when I went to Bulgaria as an MP at the end of the 1980s, I was received in Sofia by the British ambassador, who was a very famous, legendary, slightly eccentric character, but a brilliant multilingual person. That was not the subject of our conversation when I went into his extremely sumptuous sitting room. He was on his own, standing in a declamatory pose by the marble fireplace, and shouted at me—he was the kind of person who used to shout and was rather tall—and said, “The House of Commons is full of rotters. Would you like a gin?”. I said, “I agree, and yes”. Then we went on to languages, and he reeled off a number of European and other languages that he spoke. I shall not mention his name in order not to offend the family because he is long since deceased. The Foreign Office has always been a wonderful example of the proficiency of language learning in this country. It achieves marvellous levels. When visiting other countries, one has the great joy of hearing our diplomats speaking the tongue of the country concerned.

I declare an emotional interest. I am sorry if this sounds smug, because it is true, but I find languages extremely easy to learn. I always have done. I had the good fortune to decide to learn them young, although I do not know why. My parents were poorly educated, primitive local yokels in Somerset. They are long since deceased, so I can say that. I hope it does not sound too unkind. They were delightful people, but they had no connection with languages, so I never know where this comes from. I have no connection with learning musical instruments either, which people sometimes say helps. They also say that left-handed people are good at languages, and I am left-handed. I have the good fortune—it is pure luck, not cleverness on my part—to be able to speak a number of European languages very easily. I also learned Russian literature as a subsidiary subject at Cambridge University, but that is now rusty because I have never had the chance to use it properly. If I was there for six months, it would come back.

Modern languages skills are extremely important to this country and have to be tackled by an energetic Government, of whatever hue after the general election. Any Government must look at this again. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, said, we are becoming weaker. The statistic he mentioned and the other statistics mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and other noble Lords about our reckless neglect of foreign languages were chilling. We are fortunate that English has become the world’s leading commercial language. Some people say it is the world’s leading language, but others come up with other examples, such as Chinese. That has many different dialects, although I gather the script is the same for all of them, and hundreds of millions of people are now able to speak Putonghua, the standard version of Mandarin.

With English as the leading language, the complacency is understandable, but it is even more fatal for us. We are not a strong exporter; our export ratio is good, but our economy is limited and more truncated than that of other European countries, so the total figures do not look too good. Yet so much business is lost by people’s inability to speak foreign languages. As we know, that is intrinsically daft. English people, and Americans for that matter, have sometimes foolishly persuaded themselves that it is hard for them to learn languages because of their cultural background. That is not true. There are some brilliant Anglo-Saxon-type Americans who speak Spanish very well because it is such an important and dominant language in the United States, as the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, said. I have met so many British people who can speak foreign languages wonderfully, changing the accents for each language. I have the good fortune to be able to do that. A lot of people can do it. I have a recent example that noble Lords would not expect from a black cab driver in London. You ride in a black cab in London on the terms that the taxi driver talks to you and you occasionally get a chance to say, “Oh, that’s interesting”, very quickly. The driver said to me, “When I retire in a few years’ time, Doris and I are going to Spain. We’re looking for an apartment”. I said, “Oh, Malaga or Marbella, I suppose”. He said, “Certainly not! I don’t want to be near those British people who do not speak any Spanish”.

There are apparently 800,000 British people who have retired to Spain. Some of them still live in the UK as well, but most of them are out there and retired. They are of various hues. Before we had the extradition agreement, the Metropolitan Police knew some of the names and there were some colourful characters. I am reliably assured by people there that only a tiny proportion speaks any words of Spanish at all. Yet it is one of the world’s easiest languages. It was apparently ordained by a Roman emperor—I think there is an inscription somewhere in north-western Spain about this, but not in Santiago de Compostela—who wanted a modern form of Latin that the squaddies could speak without any of those daft declensions and verb endings. That became Spanish. Apart from the irregular verbs and the proverbs, of which there are many that they still use, it is a very easy language.

That conversation was encouraging to me, particularly as it was a few years after I read in one of the comics that masquerade as tabloid newspapers in Britain that the wife of an MP—I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, because it happened to be a Tory MP, but there is no reason why that has any connection at all—parked her expensive car in a prohibited area in a supermarket car park. She ignored the regulations, the colours and the signposts saying, “Do not park here”. When she was interviewed by the tabloid journalist, her words were literally, “Naturally, I didn’t speak Spanish, and the stupid policeman didn’t speak English”. That was her reply and her attitude to silly foreigners who do not speak English.

As a result of the recent football championship in Germany, more Brits saw Germany for the first time. They realised what a great country it is for holidays because the Germans have never promoted it. They noticed with astonishment that it was not just educated intellectuals and leading figures in society who spoke wonderful, incredible English, but ordinary Germans. The police have told me that the policemen on the street who worked with British bobbies when they went over could speak wonderful English, sometime better than the bobbies.

The lesson is now for there to be no more neglect by Governments. We beg the Minister, who has a reputation for being on the ball about business aspirations for British society and is credited with all sorts of other things—he has a distinguished background and career—to tackle this matter and give us some promising answers today in detail about what we will do with this question in the future.

Finally, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is correct to say that this is not just about utilitarian objectives and the reasons why people should be hired for jobs; it is about art and culture and the psychological confidence that language proficiency gives anyone of whatever background. That applies to children starting out in schools. Multilingual children in other European countries can speak one, two, three, four foreign languages because they start early. Why do we not do that here? The Minister can cheer us up today by reassuring us that this dark Gothic era of ignorance about languages is over because the Government are now going to make some interesting announcements in this debate.

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this very important debate today. I, too, speak other languages besides English. Knowing other languages does indeed give you a great sense of learning and attachment to different cultures. It is crucial that we as a nation recognise the value that other countries put on languages and their pathways to improving the economy. Sadly, we seem to be travelling in the opposite direction.

I start by stressing how important education is for our economy, as I think everyone recognises, Following the Leitch report and numerous discussions after that, we know that it will not be okay to go merrily along as we have done. We will need to ensure that all our citizens are engaged in better skilling, higher education and transferable skills if we are to remain internationally competitive. Languages are an important aspect in this development. In an ever growing global market, language becomes a commodity that can be an aid for growth. Let us not make let it a barrier.

The rate at which children in all levels of education learn languages is shocking. A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that:

“The UK is in danger of becoming one of the most monolingual countries in the world”.

How can we expect to attract investment and the relocation of international companies when this is how the country is perceived? As has been mentioned, only 44 per cent of key stage 4 pupils currently take a language at GCSE, compared with 71 per cent in 1997. This is staggering.

The Government have indicated that they are to make modern languages compulsory from the age of seven. Will the Minister enlighten the House as to how such children will manage a new language when four out of 10 children leaving primary education can barely read or write English? Where will the teachers come from to teach these languages, and where in the curriculum will the lesson be placed? Will the Government accept that, by making language compulsory at seven, making languages voluntary at key stage 4 was the wrong decision and they are now having to make a U-turn?

Given the importance of languages in the international economy, is it not now time to reinstate a modern foreign language as a compulsory part of secondary education? The Schools Minister confirmed in a response to a Written Question in the other place in 2007 that nearly 100 secondary schools put fewer than 10 pupils in for language exams in 2007. Furthermore, in 60 schools, not one pupil got a good grade in a language at GCSE-level. Why have the Government not taken more urgent action to address this worrying issue?

Total entries among 16 to 18 year-olds for languages at A-level dropped from 39,554 in 1996 to 29,542 in 2009. Not only is this overall decrease extremely worrying but there is a serious gap between children who are at independent schools and those who are at state schools. A recent survey undertaken by the Association for Language Learning found that 88 per cent of private schools made pupils study languages to GCSE-level, while just 22 per cent of state schools did. It is clear that independent schools recognise that it is in pupils’ interests to study languages up to the age of 16. Why will the Government not recognise this as well?

Students entered for GCSE French in the independent sector are five times more likely to get an A* than those from the maintained sector. The same is true for German; 7 per cent of pupils in the maintained sector achieve an A* in contrast to 30 per cent of independent pupils. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to raise the take-up rate of this vital subject, particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds? Is he concerned that state schools’ reluctance to enter pupils for languages at GCSE-level reflects the fact that the qualifications are perceived to be in difficult subjects?

My honourable friend Nick Gibb has said:

“We cannot be satisfied with such vast disparity in attainment. To close the gap we need a remorseless focus on raising expectations and we need schools to adopt the tried and tested approach to teaching languages”.

In addition, the National Union of Teachers has called on the Government to revoke their decision to make the study of foreign languages voluntary. Will the Government now accept that they have got it wrong?

Since 2002-03, there has been a 5 per cent reduction in the number of undergraduates studying languages in England. At the same time, 49 per cent of employers have expressed concern about graduates’ foreign language skills. What do the Government intend to do to remedy this situation? This is no small issue. The assistant head of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School believes that large firms and the finance sector are now going for European employees if they want languages skills. Is the Minister worried that this is the case? According to HEFCE:

“the higher education ... languages community in England perceives itself to be in crisis".

Does the Minister believe that this is the case; and, again, what does he intend to do about it?

In most countries, languages are considered integral rather than optional. A foreign language is an important educational asset in its own right, as well as being a very valuable skill in the modern economy. The drop in the number of pupils taking languages post-14 is a hugely serious problem and a reflection of the educational disadvantage that many of our young children suffer.

My Lords, on a point of clarification, does the noble Baroness agree, and does the Minister acknowledge, that there was a great deal of confusion when that fatal decision was taken in 2004. My recollection is that the Conservative Party in this House did not oppose the change at that time. One of the basic reasons was that a great deal of credence was given to the argument that the emphasis would switch to primary schools and that this would make the difference. Surely it is very important that we recognise that that simply did not happen because the teachers were not available to make it happen, and that we therefore have to reverse the earlier decision and to continue with the commitment to primary education.

My Lords, I thank my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Watson. I will continue.

In her opening speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, highlighted the great difficulties facing business. The global economy demands a much more versatile employment base, and it is hard to disagree with a number of points that she raised. I agree completely with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that we need a change of culture. It is crucial to realise that learning a new language not only helps to skill and reskill our workforce but gives young people greater employment, not only here but abroad, and a much wider understanding of the world in which we all live.

My noble friend Lord Selsdon is always to be congratulated on educating your Lordships. This time he did so on the origins of language. Listening to my noble friend would excite any young person to want to take up another language. I am also very pleased that my noble friend Lord Lyell contributed, as he offered some valuable perspectives to the debate.

All noble Lords across the Chamber have throughout the debate highlighted the need to fill the vacuum created for many young people by their being unable to participate actively in employment. That will involve many people working alongside those who do not have English as their main language and, with more jobs involving travel and time spent in other countries, it is an area that we cannot ignore. In 2007, the then Education Secretary said that we would be embarking on,

“a renaissance in languages in schools and beyond”.

However, rather than a renaissance, I think the Minister will have to agree that we have appeared to reach a nadir in modern languages.

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. I did not speak English until I was about seven years of age, so it is very much my second language. I also declare that I am chair of the council of the University of Wales at Bangor.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for providing an excellent opening to the debate and I thank all noble Lords for the huge range of opinions that they have expressed on this issue.

Before I joined the Government, I worked in a very diverse corporation. It had 75,000 people but only 1,300 were British and I saw the value of understanding other people’s cultures, faiths and attitudes. Working in Kuala Lumpur, I was struck, in particular, by the fact that the average number of languages spoken by members of staff was five. That is where the competition is, and the competition is intense.

The UK currently has a huge diversity of languages and cultures. It attracts 340,000 international students from more than 200 countries. Contrary to opinion, the World Bank ranks the UK first in Europe and in the top five globally for ease of doing business. We have been the fourth largest recipient of foreign direct investment flows, and the stock of inward foreign direct investment as a proportion of GDP is the highest of any G7 nation. Therefore, we have a huge range of international companies investing in the UK and they bring with them an enormous number of people and staff, who generally speak more than one language.

English on its own is not enough for us to stay competitive. It may well be the global language or one of the global languages but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, 75 per cent of the world’s population does not speak English and it is the first language of only 6 per cent. English comes a close third to Spanish, which has 330 million speakers, and long behind Mandarin, which has approaching 1 billion speakers. However, the world is changing. As has been said, English used to account for more than half of internet traffic; now it accounts for only 29 per cent.

The world is interconnected: barriers to trade are coming down and the movement of people is facilitated by cheap air travel. The UK is very much part of a global economy and we therefore need to raise our game to compete successfully. We are going to have to adapt to the skills that are required to compete internationally, but we are also going to have to adapt to the changing trade corridors around the world, which means new language skills. Perhaps I may pause here and say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison that we should not scorn the Welsh.

This morning I was speaking at ACAS. There were about 75 heads of human resources present from government and corporates, virtually all of whom— 74 out of the 75—said that modern language skills are hugely important if we are to stay competitive.

Languages increase cultural awareness. As has been said, with the emergence of the economies in Latin America and Asia, the ability of British people to speak Mandarin and Spanish will become increasingly important. My noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds highlighted how important that will become. However, it is also important to reflect on what the CBI has said—that 74 per cent of employers are looking for conversational and related intercultural competences rather than language fluency. We should never forget that 50 per cent of our exports in the UK are to Europe, so European languages are important, too. Our key role in Brussels has also been mentioned.

Although French and German still top the list, a significant proportion of companies require speakers in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. Therefore, the Government are revitalising the key stage 3 curriculum and are no longer restricting schools to teaching the working languages of the EU first, providing secondary schools with greater flexibility to teach world languages. By March 2010, materials for key stage 3 students will be available in French, German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Already one in seven secondary schools teaches Mandarin, and Spanish is the second most taught language after French.

I was struck by a recent report from researchers at University College London, who studied the brains of bilingual people. They found that learning other languages develops the area of the brain that processes information—the grey matter. So, much as exercise builds and tones muscles, the good news is that languages build brain power. However, the bad news is that you need to start young. The same research found that older learners will not be as fluent as those who learn earlier in life.

That finding very much supports the Government’s approach of getting children enthused about language at an early age. There is no neglect on this issue in government. It is absolutely critical that we push for early learning, as it is very important to learn languages early in life. We are making languages a statutory part of the national curriculum in primary schools from September 2011. Over 92 per cent of primary schools already teach languages, which is up from 44 per cent in 2003. We have trained more than 4,500 primary teachers with a languages specialism and we are giving £32.5 million in funding to local authorities to support the delivery of primary languages.

It was mentioned that languages are important for international business. However, they are also important for the Diplomatic Service. Since I have been in government, I have visited 29 countries and I am off to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. I am struck by how important a role our multilingual diplomatic staff play in supporting not just the Foreign Office but business generally. It is absolutely critical that they keep that competitive edge. The FCO invests heavily in language training for staff going overseas, particularly for the more difficult languages. There is also a standing conference for civil servants in particular departments—for example, the Ministry of Defence—and continuous attention is given to this in government. It is important that that stays.

Why do more women than men learn languages? It is true that we need to get more people learning languages, but we have to get a wider group of people learning them. We need to change society’s attitude towards learning languages. Languages are more popular with girls and women. In higher education, roughly two-thirds of language students are women. We need to tackle this by making languages more appealing to boys. Similarly, languages are seen as slightly elitist and are associated with independent schools, Russell Group institutions and higher socio-economic groups, which are disproportionately represented when it comes to language learning. We want children and young people from all backgrounds to be learning languages, so language learning needs to become more diverse. The Government are acting to make that so. We are seeking to address the gender imbalance through making course content more flexible in order to engage boys more effectively, developing communications materials aimed at boys and creating new online resources for them.

Although an impressive 92 per cent of primary schools already offer languages, from September 2011 all schools will be obliged to provide language learning as part of the national curriculum. Languages are already compulsory for children aged 11 to 14 and there we are revitalising the curriculum to make it more engaging.

As the Minister for Trade, I have to say that Britain has many strengths. Britain is a country that is highly creative and innovative, strong in science and research, inquiring and adventurous, yet when it comes to foreign languages we seem to have a bit of a mental block. Why do we not have the same success? It cannot be for any innate lack of capability.

The Government recognise the value of languages and are doing a huge amount to support language learning. We have a national languages strategy, which is about increasing the number of people learning languages from primary through to postgraduate level, and from 2011 we are introducing a languages and international communications diploma. We are also developing a communications campaign aimed at young people to point out what a difference language can make to their future and their lives. We have classified languages as strategically important in terms of higher education and we are investing in them through the Routes into Languages programme.

Since I became involved in this, I have been genuinely disappointed at the take-up of ERASMUS. When you look at the number of students going out internationally, you see that we have around 5.6 per cent of the market share, while around a 10 per cent share of the students are coming into the UK—we have around 10,000 students going out internationally and 20,000 coming in. We need to fix that. It is something that I need to do with the vice-chancellors. We also need to look into the issue of European interpreters. I will take that away.

The demand for degrees in some languages is growing, even if overall numbers are down. Language degrees in England fell from 3.2 per cent in 2003 to 2.7 per cent in 2008, but the numbers enrolled on joint language degree courses were up 5 per cent. What is also interesting is that the numbers for world languages have risen. Spanish degrees have risen by 13 per cent, Chinese by 36 per cent and Japanese by 43 per cent. Many students are opting to learn languages alongside their other specialisations. Some 30,000 students are taking a language module as part of their degree and more than 25,000 are doing language courses in their spare time.

We need to inspire young people to study languages in higher education. The £8 million Routes into Languages programme, funded by the DCSF and HEFCE, has created a consortium of schools, colleges and universities to work together in order to stimulate demand for language learning in secondary and higher education. Some 67 universities and more than 1,200 schools are involved, with over 27,000 school pupils taking part in activities. UCL’s policy was also mentioned. It is obviously for each university to decide on its admission policy, but what I would say is that UCL is showing strong support for language learning and I commend it for that.

Both today and on other occasions there has been criticism that languages are not compulsory at key stage 4. We do not believe that compulsion is the right approach. As Lord Dearing noted in his 2007 review of languages, a one-size-fits-all approach is not right for all pupils, and forcing 14 to 16 year-olds to study languages will not in itself raise standards or motivate pupils. We are considering a range of options for boosting take-up at key stage 4, including making the benchmark mandatory. It is interesting that Lord Dearing thought that the priority was to make language learning more exciting. I think that the decision in 2004 was made really to increase flexibility in the curriculum for vocational opportunities. We are already taking action to incentivise learning at key stage 4, such as the revised key stage 3 curriculum, the online Open School for Languages and, as I said, our communications campaign.

I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, on Youthbridge, which I will take away, and I agree to meet with the organisation. But it is not all down to the Government. The corporate sector needs to step up to provide more language learning for its employees. It makes good business sense and will make firms more competitive. My noble friend Lord Harrison mentioned that some companies admit that they are losing out. A Europe-wide study of 195 SMEs found that 115 of them had lost a contract through lack of language skills, with an average loss of business over a three-year period of £325,000. We need to join the chambers of commerce, the CBI and trade associations, together with some of the major corporations, to put in place a significant push and drive on this. As the Minister, I will take that forward and look at the scale of the language sector and its importance to British industry, and we will work with UKTI on the issue. Coupled with that, mention has been made in the debate of scholarships, and I will also take that away as an issue.

Language increases cultural awareness. One of the great benefits of language learning is the insight that it gives to other cultures, which can be vital when doing business overseas. Employers want people who can multitask and who are multiskilled. They want people who are numerate and literate, have IT skills, can work well in a team and are results-focused. Also, research shows that learning a foreign language early aids literacy and the learning of English. Employers want people who have foreign language skills and an international mindset. The great thing about studying languages is that it helps to build many of these skills.

In the Government, we realise the huge importance of the subject. We need partnership with universities, with business and with a variety of associations and we need to give a prod to the corporate sector. But the key is to get youngsters excited about language and to start them on the journey early. We have a series of actions in place, one of which is a response to the Worton report. David Lammy has said that he is willing to chair a new forum consisting of universities, schools and employers to develop a clearer communications strategy on languages.

Finally, on Skills for Growth, the whole document is built to be demand-led. Only yesterday I chaired a meeting with 16 of the major corporations in the UK at which we were discussing what skills they require to be competitive. It was very clear that language learning is something that they need and therefore we need to respond to. I thank all noble Lords.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and who have made such excellent contributions. The debate has been wide-ranging and has touched on all education sectors from primary up to university research level. We have talked about business, the Diplomatic Service and even the Olympic Games. What is striking is the degree of interconnectedness between the different sectors; when it comes to languages, that interconnectedness has an impact on our economy and the quality of our competitiveness as a nation.

I thank the Minister for his encouraging response. I hope that he will feel free to draw on the extensive expertise that has been demonstrated by all the speakers in the debate as we go forward. He made commitments to look further into a number of issues and I look forward to monitoring progress. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.