Philip Hensher: Foreign languages don't have to be European

In an increasingly globalised world, it is incredible that few schools teach anything other than French
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The Independent Online

With a certain degree of relief, we can greet a survey carried out to coincide with the European Day of Languages, an annual EU celebration of linguistic diversity. After all, it turns out that we are not the very worst in Europe at learning languages. If only 30 per cent of Britons admit to speaking another language, we just beat the Hungarians, who, at a 29 per cent polyglot rate, seem to be Europe's highest refuseniks in the language stakes.

All the same, 30 per cent is pretty terrible. At least the Hungarians have the excuse that they speak a language so distinct from all its neighbours that it requires a massive leap to master those different linguistic forms.

We don't have any such excuse, and when you consider the Luxembourgeois, say, 99 per cent of whom speak more than one language, our failure is depressing.

Partly, of course, you can make the case that the whole world speaks English, and there is very little incentive to learn another language. The low number of foreign-language speakers in Britain represents not just an historical reluctance but an actual decline. This is over a period when, due to increasing ease of travel, we ought to expect ever-increasing numbers. Indeed, in the rest of Europe, this is exactly what has happened.

The responsibility must be placed on educational policy. In this area, the government has created a situation where students shop around for easier options, and shun an intellectually-demanding subject such as a language A-level. The result, year after year, is a fall in the number of candidates for each language - it can't be very long until the numbers taking German A- level is in three figures.

What on earth has created this bizarre situation? First, foreign languages are no longer compulsory after the age of 14. If they are dropped by large numbers of pupils, that, surely, is down to the fact that few state schools teach them early enough. Everyone knows that a child will find it steadily more difficult to acquire a second language, the older it gets.

Most children who start learning a language at 12 will still be finding it impenetrable at 14, and will drop it happily. If you start learning one at seven, you will still be speaking it at 20.

The obvious solution is to make them compulsory, up until 16 at least. The best solution, however, is to roll back the tuition into the primary schools or even earlier. A child will enjoy doing what he has learnt to do, however daunting a task it may objectively appear.

One's principal feeling about all this, however, is that one solution is under the nose of the schools. It was quite astonishing, a week before the European Day of Languages, to see a story across the newspapers about a school in Portsmouth where 60 - or 160, or 6,000, it hardly matters - languages are spoken among the pupils. That, of course, was presented as an enormous problem, and certainly the school must have had to develop ways in which to introduce newly arrived non-English speakers to the language of their peers.

But it seems quite unlikely that those non-English speakers stayed non-English speaking for long, and once they master the language of the playground, with, one has no doubt, the incredible speed of children submerged in a language, that ability to switch between languages could only be an educational advantage. On one occasion, when I taught a class of inner-city London schoolchildren at a summer school for a week, it was very apparent that those children who came from a bilingual background, with, say, parents whose first language was Bengali, were far less likely to make grammatical mistakes in English than their monolingual peers, having some point of comparison.

It's odd, not to say hypocritical, to bewail at one moment the problems of a highly-multicultural school, where pupils are fluent in 60 languages apart from English, and the next complain that only 30 per cent of Britons can speak a foreign language at all. But of course, what is meant by "a foreign language" is "a European language."

In an increasingly globalised world, it seems incredible that so few schools have taken the opportunity to teach languages other than French and maybe Spanish. Would it not be a good idea, given the huge numbers of Bangladeshis in London and elsewhere, to offer a Bengali A-level which not just they, but other pupils, might like to study? After all, Bengali - I bet you didn't know this - is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, just behind Arabic.

But somehow, non-European languages are thoroughly demoted in the eyes of the educational establishment, and little taken seriously.

Notoriously, you can ask an entire class in an inner-city school if any of them speak more than one language, and get no response: quite a lot of probing is required before it turns out that quite a lot of them don't talk in English when they are at home. It is, bizarrely, often almost a matter of embarrassment or shame. I wonder whether that figure of 30 per cent is accurate; I wonder what it overlooked.

Of course, more needs to be done with the English and the languages of their immediate neighbours. But the language-learning establishment might, in return, like to reconsider its evident assumptions of what constitutes a "useful" language. With increasing flows of peoples over the face of the world, those assumptions are looking completely outdated.