Philip Hensher: If only Estelle Morris had learned French

I find it worrying that a person who talks as she does was ever thought fit to take charge of education
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The Independent Online

It's now been two years since the Government, at the instigation of the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, dropped any compulsion for students to study any foreign language after the age of 14. The effects of this anti-initiative are now being observed by universities. The numbers of school students studying any foreign language at A-level have gone into free-fall. Many schools have cut back on the numbers of language teaching staff, with the result that the small number of interested students who may wish to take a foreign language find it difficult to do so, contributing still further to the decline.

The decision has been described as having "a very negative effect" on language learning, and the students now coming up to university as "a lost generation". Language learning has largely passed into the hands of private schools, which can afford to maintain these demanding subjects. Other schools are quietly winding down their provision. Estelle Morris claims that head teachers are perfectly at liberty to make foreign languages compulsory, if they choose. She must know that the pressures against doing so are near-overwhelming.

Some language teaching, true, has been introduced very much earlier, in primary schools. What the quality of this language teaching is, nobody really knows. There has been some talk of the laid-off secondary language teachers moving into primary education. But the situation is probably better represented by the information that 20,000 primary teachers have been retrained to teach foreign languages.

I'm sure some of these are very good, but it's hard to avoid the suspicion that others don't have the lifelong dedication to a foreign language that almost all professional language teachers in a secondary school will have had.

The rationale for this was being repeated by Estelle Morris on the Today programme yesterday. In her view, the compulsory teaching of foreign languages meant that students were being prevented from studying English, maths and more vocational subjects. She didn't actually say "more important subjects" but the thought was clearly there.

It shows, I think, a remarkable lack of attention to the holistic nature of an education to think that foreign languages, apart from their innate importance, don't contribute to the development of analytical thinking in general, and to language skills, even in one's native language, in particular. Anyone who teaches in a university will now be familiar with students who have achieved good A-level grades without apparently acquiring any ability to write a grammatical sentence. Gentle inquiry often reveals that these are students who have never studied any form of foreign language.

Estelle Morris inadvertently proved this point by what one might think an extraordinarily vague sense of correct English. Spoken English is more casual, of course, than written English, but I find it quite worrying that a person who talks as Lady Morris does was ever thought a fit person to put in charge of national education. She began with the George W Bush-like sentiment that "I'm one who thinks languages is very important," and it got worse. "If a head teacher in school wants to make it compulsory in his or her school, so that every student has to do it, they have the power to do it."

Could it really be that anyone who has ever learnt the value of a foreign language could ever say such things? It's possible that these sentences come from ignorance, or from some regional dialect where plural nouns take singular verbs and pronouns have no relation with the preceding nouns, but what about this incredible sentence: "I don't think there's many inches between Nick and I, to tell you the truth".

"There's many inches" is fascinating enough, but "between Nick and I" can only plausibly come from someone whose understanding of language extends to the vague notion that the word "I" is somehow posher than the word "me". A person who had ever been asked to decide whether it was correct to write "je" or "moi", or "ich" or "mich" in a given sentence would, I believe, find it very hard to write or speak the phrase "between Nick and I".

Languages are not an ornamental and optional addition to a functional education. They contribute in a fundamental way to analytical habits of thought, powers of accurate expression, and intellectual development. Furthermore, in a multicultural society, they ought to contribute to much more than a general awareness that not everybody thinks and speaks in English - there is a strong case for the expansion of modern language teaching to include languages other than European ones. Even if you spent your entire life in London, it might be thought that the acquisition of some Bengali might prove to be of some practical use to you.

From China to Peru, every nation in the world is now recognising global realities by investing in language learning. It seems short-sighted to think that, since most of the world is learning English, it removes any obligation on us to do the same. What is urgently needed is an expansion and preservation of language learning, at all stages of compulsory education. If that should ever happen, it will certainly not be at the behest of someone who, by saying "I'm one who thinks languages is very important," instantly demonstrates how untrue that statement is.