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Kids, Eat Your Verts - Languages Are Good For You

03/09/2014 12:31 BST | Updated 03/11/2014 10:59 GMT

As we dumped a bucket over my daughter's head on Monday, we noticed the only thing that's squeezing the Ice Bucket Challenge out of social media timelines this week...

Across the country, proud parents have been posting pictures of their newly uniformed kids, posing with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, on the morning of their first day at a new school - my son started his today.

And, this time round, the start of the new school year brings with it a potentially life-changing new development: from now on, primary school children over the age of seven will have to learn a foreign language. Zut alors!

But, despite some long faces, it's an important step in the struggle against the UK's chronic lack of foreign language skills - a habit of a lifetime that's estimated to be costing the UK economy almost £50 billion a year in missed business opportunities.

We are all born linguists - the only reason we don't learn foreign languages is if we're not exposed to them. Otherwise you just soak them up.

The secret perhaps, like so often with kids, is stealth - a main course of broccoli can cause a revolt. But sneaking those greens onto the side of the plate sometimes gets them eaten. So getting languages on the Primary School menu is a great start - pushing them on every young person's plate gets them used to the strange taste.

And here's the interesting thing - we've discovered with some of our recent research that languages often turn out to be as useful - and valuable - on the side and not just as the main dish. So you don't have to choose between French or Physics, or Chinese instead of Business Studies - they are just as good, and often better, together.

So in developing a taste for languages we have nothing to lose and a great deal to gain: for our children, their employability, our businesses and the UK as a whole.

Starting languages earlier gives us a better chance of enthusing young people to study them for longer and to get to a higher standard than they're currently minded to do. Less than half of students currently take a language GCSE - let alone anything more advanced. But like broccoli, every little helps. And you don't have to be fluent to be functional and thus a better host and ambassador for the UK. Even a few words can make you friends and influence people.

What's more, if languages are taught in primary schools as part of a broader cultural education, we'll soon be sending all our young people off to secondary school with a superb grounding in the basic ingredients of being a global citizen: youngsters who can better connect with other people and other cultures.

No-one's pretending that the introduction of compulsory languages at Key Stage Two is going to solve the UK's language problem overnight - nor that it will be easy.

The British Council and CfBT's latest Language Trends report showed that, while the vast majority - 85% - of primary schools are enthusiastic about the changes, three quarters of them also believe that implementing them will be a challenge.

And, with years before we're likely to see the impact of these changes at GCSE, we mustn't forget older kids - the ones already at secondary school. This year we saw a halt to recent growth in the number of students taking language GCSEs. So unless employers continue to ask for them, and we showcase for young people the benefits of learning a language, things could get worse before they get better.

So, parents of the UK: there may be trouble ahead; there will be aggro with the homework and cross moments as we stumble over foreign vocabulary and tortuous grammar. But, together we can...

When it comes to language learning, I start this new school term like all those other parents sending their kids to a new school: a little anxious, a little excited, and hopeful for a brighter linguistic future.