Mary Dejevsky: Why bother to learn another language?

The one argument that cannot be sustained is that Britons are less adept at learning foreign languages
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The Independent Online

The middle of August and the whingeing is easy: too many A-level passes, too many A grades, too few hard sciences and, as for foreign languages - Ach Du meine Güte! Quel dommage! - they are practically extinct.

The complaints are oh so familiar. Today's pupils drop languages as soon as they do because they find them hard and lack the necessary perseverance. There is a dearth of good teachers. The decline of German and Russian reflects, in part, an aversion to these two countries and cultures born of the selective and negative approach to these countries' histories in the national curriculum.

Then again, maybe it is the monopoly of French that is to blame. If only Spanish, Hindi or Mandarin were standard options for the first foreign language, pupils would find the learning easier, more beguiling and, above all, more "relevant". In fact, more choice in foreign languages was one of the arguments presented way back in favour of large comprehensives as opposed to smaller grammar schools. But that is a separate issue. Whatever subject diversity comprehensives may have fostered, it has rarely been in languages. Maybe "specialist" schools will eventually fill the gap. But for the time being, most pupils have the chance to learn Spanish only after they have tried French, and the so-called "hard languages" remain the preserve of the public schools.

In the state sector, schools seem all too often just to be going through the motions where languages are concerned. When the Government decided that 14-year-olds need no longer learn a foreign language as part of the national curriculum, schools rushed to drop the obligation even before it officially lapsed. Primary school language teaching advocated as part of the same initiative is still some way off.

Lazy pupils, poor teaching and inadequate choice may all play a part in the slump in language-learning in this country. The one argument that cannot be sustained, however - because it is simply not true - is that Britons are somehow less adept at learning foreign languages than the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and - nowadays - even the French. In my experience of living and working abroad, when Britons really knuckle down to learning a language they do it just as competently as anyone else.

The peculiarity of Britain is not that, as a nation, we are congenitally good or bad at languages, but that language skills are unevenly distributed. School-leavers probably have less basic competence in one foreign language than many of their European peers, but those who acquire a language, at school or subsequently, tend to know several to a good, and even excellent, standard. The theory that the more languages you know, the easier it is to pick up another has some truth in it.

Wales furnishes proof, were it needed, of the linguistic potential of Britons. There are now more bilingual English-Welsh speakers than there were a generation ago. Since the late Eighties all pupils in Wales must take Welsh as a first or second language throughout their school career. The requirements of business and politics - with establishment of the Welsh assembly - mean that becoming bilingual is seen not just as a chore, but an absolute requirement and a passport to the best jobs. Able individuals who see their future in Wales understand the need to master both Welsh and English, and the results are clear.

In England, which is after all where the vast majority of Britons live, there is neither a need nor a requirement to know any language other than English. Even in this much-vaunted "global" world, the proportion of people who live or work for any extended period outside the land of their birth is surprisingly small. The social cachet that a command of French once bestowed is in the past. The contest for an international language has been won and the lingua franca of our age and the age of today's schoolchildren is English.

This may not last far into the next century. An argument can be made for Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic as rising claimants to be the future language of international communication. Here and now, though, for us Britons, Americans and others with English as their first language, this is an immense good fortune that frees us from the otherwise necessary slog of learning another language.

Those pupils who give up on a foreign language almost as soon as they have started it are not all indolent, stupid or poorly taught; they are making a reasonable calculation about what skills and qualifications they will need in life. And they conclude that for them, as for most people who rarely leave these shores except for a few week's holiday a year, mastery of a foreign language is a luxury not a necessity.

Their peers elsewhere in Europe also make a similar calculation and draw a different conclusion. They know, whether from satellite television, films, pop lyrics or job adverts, that a good command of English and perhaps another language offers a key to advancement. They draw the appropriate conclusion and invest the necessary time. Their education systems are geared to providing the expertise their school leavers will require. For many pupils, that includes English as compulsory from primary school through to university entrance. The results are reflected in our gushing appreciation when they exercise their English for our benefit.

But, you will object with appropriate passion, communication is not, and should not be, the only purpose of learning a foreign language. A second language opens access to another culture; it broadens horizons, it may spread tolerance and goodwill. It can be a qualification for employment. And all this is true.

For an English-speaker in most of Britain, though, another language is not essential either to advancement or to wellbeing. No longer compulsory beyond 14, it is not a requirement either for a school-leaving qualification or for university. It confers no status whatever. It is a job requirement only in relatively junior - and poorly paid - positions. Senior managers pay interpreters and translators; others gain a smattering at expensive crash courses. These are the facts of our monolingual life.

They can be changed: Wales has shown how an official policy that favours and funds bilingualism has an effect. Were competence in at least one foreign language to become a minimum requirement for higher education or for civil service employment, attitudes would be transformed overnight. As it is, a certain bravado is associated with linguistic ignorance that unites fogeys and thugs. So long as foreign languages are seen not to be valued, schools and pupils will shun them - and, in today's utilitarian terms, they are absolutely right.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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