That's the title of a BBC web site article following the annual hand wringing as GSCE results show a continued decline in numbers of students taking languages. GCSE French numbers have fallen 45% in eight years, whilst German struggles even more and Spanish holds it own. (We shouldn't forget that there there are a good number of pupils doing other courses such as Asset languages.)
I would be curious to know where we stand compared to the 1970's, when only a minority of pupils did French to age 16. My hunch would be that more children are still learning up to 16, but that fewer are doing A-level as more and more options have been offered for less brilliant students.
Incidentally José Picardo has written a nice blog post on language learning and the class divide.
The two main factors involved in the decline are the government's decision to make languages optional at key Stage 4 and the relative difficulty of language learning compared to some other subjects where it is easier to achieve high grades. Schools have allowed their curriculum to be dictated by league tables rather than the eucational worth of a subject. They have also, realistically, accepted that many children find language learning too hard and are more motivated and less troublesome if they study other subjects.
Is language learning hard? Yes. It requires a good deal of concentration and memory. Is it fun? It often can be, more so than most other subject areas. Should all pupils do a language to age 16? No. Many waste their time despite our best efforts and we have to accept that motivation will be low in a country which speaks the world's lingua franca.
Paul Noble, quoted in the BBC piece, says that we need to make language learning more conversational and relevant. There is nothing new in this, but it is a rather naive response, since it ignores the fact that conversational competence hangs on grammatical skill and vocabulary knowledge. Conversational skill is the very hardest thing to master and many children prefer other skills.
The fact is that with the little time we allocate to language learning only a minority of quite able students will achieve much competence. Let's not pretend that initiatives at primary level will change the game to any degree either.
So what can we do?
How about addressing the severe grading issue in languages? French is about half a grade harder than most other subjects and a whole grade harder than a few. (Google "ALL severe grading" for chapter and verse on this.) Also, what about rewarding schools who enter more KS4 pupils for languages in the value added system? This would encourage head to place a greater emphasis on MFL. Sure, we need to keep reevaluating teaching methods and improving teachers. Universities may also wish to re-introduce the requirement to have a language at GCSE as an entry requirement (as UCL does). I would also broaden the curriculum at A-level, as had been the original intention with the 2000 reform. Five subjects at AS level instead of four would be a start. We lose lots of potentially good linguists at A-level as bright students choose maths and science.
Oh - and we should defend French. German has more speakers in Europe, but French is more widely used by Britons. Germans cope better in English than French people. Business in Europe still seeks French and German ahead of Spanish. How many of our students will work in the Americas? Mandarin is too hard for most and few of our youngsters will work in China.