i Editor's Letter: The world's lingua franca


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The Independent Online


Many i readers have developed a knee-jerk antipathy towards our education secretary, Michael Gove. He is one of the Coalition's more Marmite figures. Those that admire his confident erudition see him as a possible leader-in-waiting. For others, his mere appearance on the screen makes their skin crawl.

We stumble inadvertently into this quagmire ourselves here at i, as we run the risk of upsetting people every time we picture him. We can't help it if he can look like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

But, surely we ought to support his suggestion that learning foreign languages should be compulsory at the age of seven. Mandarin, French, Latin, Greek, German and Spanish could be offered from September 2014. To which the only response is: why aren't they already?

For too long we relied on British imperialism and US business to help spread English as the world's lingua franca. It gave us a headstart in most international situations. Trouble is, it has made us lazy.

After her splendid French Open semi-final victory over Sam Stosur at Roland Garros last week, Italy's Sara Errani was interviewed on the court by a French commentator in English, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And this in Paris.

We can sneer at Fabio Capello or Giovanni Trapattoni's English and mock Mario Balotelli, but where is the polyglot English manager who has worked overseas (sorry, step forward Roy Hodgson), or current top British player (not in LA)?

As Berlin, Moscow and Beijing assert themselves on the world stage, so too will their languages. Have you ever heard how well most educated young Chinese can speak English? It is startling. How many of our young can speak Russian, Mandarin, or even German? The numbers are actually declining.

So, put aside your views on Mr Gove, and let's get behind his aim to have our children catch up with the rest of the world. Make no mistake, we need them to.