Wednesday 27 February 2019

I am a Rock: Why are the British so bad at languages?

I try very hard to be an optimist and I genuinely think that in many - indeed in most - ways, the world has become a significantly better place over my lifetime. However, there is always stuff going on to counter that rose-tinted view of the world, both in my own life and in the wider world, and just occasionally things crop up which make me succumb to feelings of doom and gloom.

One such thing greeted me in this morning’s news (February 27th 2019), with the not exactly surprising revelation that language learning here in the UK appears to be in meteoric decline, according to a survey by BBC news. The story is here:

For a linguist it makes depressing reading, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to link this apparent decline in our willingness as a nation to engage with the language and culture of other countries as symptomatic of the same narrow-minded insularity that drove a (very slim) majority of Britons to vote to leave the EU back in 2016.

As a retired languages teacher, I am relieved to say that this is now for me just a subject of deep concern, rather than one of professional survival, but that doesn’t mean to say that I am not very sad to see it happening. We Brits have always been bad at it, but why are we getting worse at learning languages? And why are we not more worried about it? In short, why are we so arrogant?

When I graduated and came into language teaching in the early 80s, the future for language learning looked bright. We were relatively new members of the EU, and as a nation we were rapidly becoming more familiar with our European neighbours thanks to easier communications, the boom in foreign holidays, growth in trade and a love affair with cuisine more interesting than the “boiled beef and carrots” on which our parents’ generation had been raised. It’s very hard to believe now, but pizza and pasta were exotic rarities as recently as the 1970s, whilst wine was a drink for the well-to-do or for special occasions, and baguettes, croissants and quiche were words encountered only in French lessons at school. Languages were valued and booming in schools, and a move away from élitist grammar-based teaching, with more emphasis on practical communication skills - listening and speaking - promised a bright future for the subject.

That’s the way it was in the first 25 years of my teaching career: modern languages (in the case of my school French and German) were part of the core curriculum alongside Maths English and the sciences and whilst some didn’t like them and weren’t very good at them, there was a feeling that, like Maths, language learning was somehow “good for you”. For me, a pragmatic and good-humoured approach to teaching, combined with giving pupils the opportunities for fun trips to foreign parts, made it relatively easy, and certainly enjoyable, to teach languages.

In my small school, with around 100 in each year group, all pupils took GCSE French or German, and A-Level entries of between 10 and 20 for my main language, French were the norm as recently as the early 2000s, with many of these going on to read the subject at university.

So what has gone so badly wrong with language learning, and in such a short time? These days, taking a language to GCSE has become just an option, taken up by just a few keenies, and as a result, A-Level language teachers in many schools and colleges often struggle to recruit more than a handful of candidates, with formerly mainstream languages like German having become the preserve of a tiny minority, as confirmed in today’s news report.

Part of the answer lies in a perfectly laudable broadening of the curriculum over recent decades: more apparently attractive, relevant and  - dare I say - easier subjects like Business Studies, Psychology, Photography, Physical Education and Media Studies have all proved to be an irresistible temptation to pupils burdened with a “must pass” core of English, Maths and the sciences. Moreover, some very poor choices made by the exam boards who devise specifications at GCSE and A-Level have served to make languages statistically a very risky choice for pupils, with top grades elusive. This, combined with schools leaders’ nervous pursuit of league table success has led to a “perfect storm” for languages in schools.

This is very, very sad, and in my opinion very damaging to our long-term success and well-being as a society, at two distinct levels:

The first is self-evident and practical: our unwillingness to engage with the language and culture of other countries is deeply harmful to trade and business. We hide behind the excuse that “everybody speaks English”, failing to realise that the wheels of commerce are driven by human interaction and good manners, which often amount to no more than making an effort to meet others halfway. Yes, the detailed negotiations for that lucrative contract may be carried out in English, but the small-talk and goodwill that underpin it may be immeasurably strengthened by a simple greeting in the language of the host, or maybe a “please” and a “thank you” at mealtimes or a comment about the weather. It’s amazing how much ice can be broken by trying to use just a bit of school-level language.

And please don’t tell me that speaking another language is difficult: much of the rest of the world is bilingual, and we are reminded all the time by the many lovely and capable people from across Europe who have in recent years come to live and work in our country how easy it is to become fluent in English, one of the subtlest, richest and most illogical of all languages. We all meet them every day: think of that every time you are served in a restaurant or a coffee shop, helped recover from illness by a doctor or nurse in hospital or greeted by a hotel receptionist, many of whom are non-native speakers of English.

Or how about footballers and their managers? Is there a better and more expressive user of English than Jürgen Klopp? Does anyone in Manchester speak better “Manc” than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? These guys, and those who play for them have mastered our language because they have lived and worked here and absorbed our culture, not because they took school and university examinations.

Which brings me to the second reason for valuing language learning, a less obvious but equally important one. Yes, we need to be far better at the practical business of communicating in other languages, but what about the hidden benefits of language learning, beyond the obvious ones?

Language learning has multiple subtle benefits, way beyond the straightforward business of communicating. Thanks to the previous successes of our education system, the highest levels of every profession here in the UK are massively enriched by the presence of linguists, who benefit enormously from the subtle transferred skills derived from their knowledge of another language. Among my ex-students of A-Level French are numerous doctors, engineers, scientists, business people and teachers, as well as actors and media journalists, all of whom probably seldom if ever use their A-Level French, yet still benefit from it every day. Modern linguists, and their close counterparts classicists, are everywhere in the professions, but I fear that they will become fewer in number over time, and those professions will be the poorer for it. It came as no surprise to me when I discovered recently through my post-retirement work in the diabetes community that the Chief Executives of the two main diabetes charities in the UK, JDRF and Diabetes UK are, respectively, a Cambridge linguist and an Oxford classicist.

I took a degree in French and German at Oxford University, yet my ability to speak fluent and colloquial French comes not from my studies at Oxford, but from a year spent living and working in a small town in rural France where nobody spoke English, and playing for a non-league football team there. However, this is not to belittle my Oxford languages degree, far from it: studying for a traditional university degree in Modern Languages, with its emphasis on detailed translation of literary texts, and above all the reading and critical analysis of vast quantities of literature in the original language has given me skills such as absorbing and processing information, understanding a variety of viewpoints, and writing concise and focused English which served me well throughout my professional career and continue to do so in my post-retirement work in healthcare advocacy.

I very much hope that we can arrest the decline in language learning before it gets too late, but at the risk of concluding on a gloomy note, I fear the damage has already been done. I am loathe to politicise this issue, but it is difficult not to see a connection between the mentality of Brexit and that of our unwillingness to prioritise and promote language learning. Perhaps we are at the darkest hour just before dawn, and if a post-Brexit Britain is left marginalised, as well as culturally and materially impoverished by the short-sighted and misguided decision of a particular generation, perhaps future generations can right this wrong. I hope so.

Oh, so what's the song title for this post, as is my wont? It’s almost impossible to find a song about languages, so I’ve settled for a wonderful Simon and Garfunkel song whose lyrics I profoundly disagree with, yet whose title sums up where we seem to be heading. 

Great song, shame about the meaning: I am a Rock

No comments:

Post a Comment

Go Your Own Way

  I developed Type One Diabetes just over 26 years ago, in December 1997. I have often said that it was a good moment to join that “club tha...