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Speaking in tongues

Posted by Helen Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Apparently, yesterday was European Day of Languages. If you did not notice it, never mind, there will be another one soonish. Every day seems to be European or International Day of something or other. There used to be diaries and calendars that listed them all but it is not really possible to do so. Not only the Days are double-booked but they are also overwritten by Weeks of Something Worthy, Months of Something Else Desperately Notable and even Years of Completely Different Politically Correct Issues.

One person, needless to say, noticed and that was the egregious Dennis McShame. He made a speech. Not a long speech but not a very coherent one either. He started off, as is his wont, with an exhortation to the sluggish British:

“A monolingual Britain will not prosper in a globalised economy, let alone make our way as a leading nation in Europe. Not everyone in the world speaks English and it is folly for Britain to turn its back on the need to improve our abilities to speak other tongues.”
The trouble with that argument is that it leads nowhere. As it happens, people who want to get on in the globalised economy, do speak English, because that is what might be termed the lingua franca at the moment and for the foreseeable future. The only organization that still produces everything in French first is the European Union and, even before enlargement eastward, English was the second language of preference for most people in it. With the new East European countries as members, English has become the language of preferred usage. And, in any case, in the globalised economy the European Union is not going very far.

Nor is British refusal to learn languages (by and large, since this country has also produced some of the best linguists in the world) a new problem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, the first Foreign Editor of the Times and the greatest expert on Russia at the time, complained that British businessmen were not taking proper advantage of Russia’s astonishing growth because, unlike their German counterparts, they did not learn the language well enough to find out what the Russians were really saying. Reality, in the unwelcome guise of American dominance, has since then caught up with the British.

Just to show that he misunderstands everything not just the European Union, Mr McShame has this to say about the United States:
“The United States is becoming a bilingual nation with Spanish rising as its second language.”
Errr no. There is a problem with some of the Hispanic population of the United States in that, unlike previous immigrants, they do not want to learn English and do not want to assimilate. The reasons are too long to go into now, but one of the problems has been, needless to say, government money provided for bilingual teaching, health care, whatever. This has now been recognized as a problem, rather than a virtue, which is a pity, as knowing other languages is quite a good idea. Those Hispanics who want to prosper in the United States do as all the other groups and learn English, perhaps continuing the speaking of Spanish at home. Those who do not, are doomed to stay in low paid, low prospect jobs. In fact, the so-called Hispanic revolution has harmed the cause of language learning in the United States, which manages to remain at the top of the tree with English.

The point is that Mr McShame is incapable of providing good reasons for learning languages because all he wants to do is discourage people from thinking that English is the most important language in the world. But it is. For all of that, learning other languages is a good idea.

Unfortunately, at the same time as Mr McShame extolled the fact that children start learning languages that they will never be able to speak, if past experience is anything to go by, at primary school level, several newspapers noted that new rules allow pupils to drop languages at 14 and are being taken advantage of with great enthusiasm. Three in ten 16 year-olds will have given up languages by the time they get to that stage, with numbers rising in schools with higher free meal entitlement. (The chances are, of course, that in those schools the teaching of languages is so abysmal as to destroy any possibility of anybody continuing with their study.)

Stephen Twigg, the Schools Minister, pointed out rather proudly that half of the primary schools were now teaching languages, without going too deeply into how they were doing it, and added:

"We do not want to go back to the old days when we tried to force feed languages to 15-year-olds who had no aptitude or interest."
A fair point but an odd one to build a curriculum on, as 15-year-olds are not known for their aptitude or interest in anything academic.

Here we have another fine example of that joined-up thinking that this government is so famous for. On the one hand, they have a Minister for Europe telling us that we must learn languages or we shall perish (or something like that); on the other hand, we have educational policies that encourage children not to learn anything, and, in particular, not to learn foreign languages.

To be fair, we also seem to have a spokesperson for the National Centre for Languages, who seems incapable of explaining why learning them is a good idea:

“We are concerned that languages are being seen as elitist when in fact they need to be seen very much as part of vocational training. We need to have chefs who speak French, engineers who speak German and estate agents who speak Spanish just as much as we need linguists and translators.”
Why learning anything should be seen as elitist, when it is the exact opposite is a bit of a mystery, but that’s educationalists for you. In addition, Ms Moore seems to have a somewhat old-fashioned view of what various nationalities do and why one needs to be able to communicate with people from them.

Her comments remind me of a conversation I had with a thirteen-year old ten years or so ago. She was starting on Spanish and showed me her textbook. I knew that grammar and vocabulary were no longer part of the curriculum but I was rather surprised to find that textbooks were little more than collections of phrases about swimming pools, single and double rooms, breakfasts and other meals.

When I commented on the fact that this did not seem to be all that different from the average tourist handbook, my interlocutor asked me what other reason was there for learning Spanish. Presumably, she had been told this by her teachers, which makes one think that the gradual disappearance of language teaching from English schools is no big deal. Nobody ever managed to learn anything in those lessons. Those who see a reason for reading or speaking another one, two or more languages will do so. Most of us would settle for teachers who could teach English.

However, I can think of at least one excellent reason for learning other languages. I doubt if Mr McShame would ever use it, though. The fact is that knowledge of other languages gives you an understanding of other people. And the knowledge of European languages gives an understanding of Europe, its countries and their history. Anyone who has that understanding in any measure at all finds the idea of a European Union stupid and ridiculous as well as dangerous. Which makes me think that Mr McShame’s famous linguistic ability may not be quite as great as some people make out.