Education Letter: We need to be multilingual

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alan Bright's article, "Should we learn foreign languages" (EDUCATION, 9 December), raises important issues regarding the motivation of non-English speakers to learn the language spoken by - as he puts it - the remaining superpower in the world (and also sung by the most influential pop stars of the world).

His critical view exposes a number of commonly held assumptions (we're no good at languages etc) as simply not getting to the issue in question: "foreigners" are highly motivated to learn English because it opens many doors to communication - not just with speakers of English but also as a common mode of communicating. We can't, after all, learn everybody's language.

However, is this the whole story? Towards the end of his article, he fleetingly points to the importance of learning other languages to achieve "personal and professional satisfaction" and to appreciate other cultures. A good enough reason to learn another language, perhaps, but surely there are others.

Learning another language also encourages the learner to adopt a more critical and reflexive way of looking at his/ her own language and the nature of language itself.

It also confers upon the learner an appreciation of just how difficult learning another language can be and how - as a native speaker - one can adopt an enabling stance towards those struggling to communicate in a foreign language.

These skills, I would argue, are absolutely crucial in our age of globalisation. Others may be better at this, perhaps simply because they make foreign languages a compulsory core of the curriculum, and languages commonly taught elsewhere (e.g. Latin taught in many grammar schools in Germany) surely point to the importance given to these at least in part transferable skills.

English speakers should be grateful for their advantage but should not be complacent in their acknowledgement of the variety of skills that language learning can develop. This could be translated into greater emphasis on those skills at school and a wider variety of choice of languages in school.