Philip Hensher: Let Bengali parents teach their language at school

We have, in many of our schools, an enormous hidden resource and an enormous opportunity
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The Independent Online

One aspect, at least, of Alan Johnson's reconsideration of the school curriculum deserves some praise. Most of the attention has been focused on his insistence, designed to reassure parents in a fast-changing intellectual climate, that some traditional objects of study will remain "untouchable": Shakespeare and pre-20th-century classic fiction in English literature, algebra in mathematics.

Personally, vitally important as Shakespeare is and will remain, I think it is more interesting to see the ways in which school curricula try to master a fast-changing world while retaining intellectual integrity. Too many school initiatives have pretended to be moving subjects forwards, while actually becoming much less demanding.

Many of these new subjects and approaches have frankly failed to gain the approval of the schools' ultimate customers, employers and universities. The best universities, such as Cambridge, are starting to demand that students offer A-levels in solid traditional subjects to get a chance of admission.

One initiative, however, deserves everyone's support, even if the full positive implications of the development didn't seem to be apparent even to the Government. As everyone knows, foreign language teaching is in sharp decline. The traditional French, Spanish and maybe German spots on the timetable are attended by fewer and fewer pupils.

The focus of the Government's initiative has expanded to something which has hardly been envisaged even as a possibility until now. The Qualifications and Curriculum Agency is to encourage schools to offer non-European languages, stressing that, since we all live in a more-than-European world, it would be an advantage to be able to speak some Mandarin or Arabic.

Some objections have been raised to this; the Conservative education spokesman, Nick Gibb, pointed out, quite rightly, that there is a shortage of qualified teachers of non-European languages, and that there should be consistent provision throughout a child's education. Rather than teaching the rudiments of Mandarin for two years before the child moves to a school with no provision for continuing the subject, Gibb thought it would be better to carry on with French and Spanish. At least the resources, in the form of teachers, seem to be there throughout the education system.

That is certainly true, but what can't be denied is that there is a substantial pool of people who are highly qualified to teach these non-European languages in our cities, in the form of native speakers. These native speakers, whatever their age, notoriously undervalue their important ability to speak more than one language. It is well known that if you ask a class of teenagers if any of them are bilingual, many who speak a different language at home will not admit to it, perhaps not thinking of their Urdu as a "proper" language because it isn't on the school curriculum.

I don't see this enterprise as necessarily being taken up by schools without a wide cultural mix, but it might well be the academic saviour of many institutions in cities. For instance, it seems obvious to me that schools in the East End of London ought to be encouraged to offer Bengali as a subject to GCSE and A-level. Even to students who don't come from a Bengali background, the subject and the ability to converse in it will have a more relevance than many European languages.

And such an enterprise would address a serious issue within the Bengali community. Immigrants in the first two or three generations have a general tendency to underplay their cultural background, and even discourage their children from immersing themselves in the full range of their culture.

It seems to me that we have, in many of our schools, an enormous hidden resource and an enormous opportunity. Of course, there is no reason why a schoolchild of Bengali origin should not be taught French in exactly the same way that one from an English background is. But the skill which many of them already possess is one that schools with an enterprising attitude could develop in ways which mere domestic practice never would, in the end introducing a child of uneducated working-class Bengali parents to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Satyajit Ray.

It works, as well, in two ways. It seems extraordinary, considering the immense value most immigrant communities place on education, that so little has been achieved in the way of recruiting them into teaching as a career. A teacher from a first- or second-generation immigrant background will probably not be in a position, in terms of his teaching abilities, to draw on his ancestral culture, whether he is teaching children from similar backgrounds to himself or those from quite different ones.

The Government seems to have thought of this enterprise in the first instance as directed towards languages that are important in terms of trade, suggesting Mandarin and Arabic. That is obviously not a bad idea, although there are considerably better remunerated career opportunities for people who have mastered either of those languages.

I see the potential here, not as retraining or as forcing remote and unfamiliar disciplines on schools with little connection to non-European communities; rather the opportunity lies with schools which have overlooked an enormous body of resources, skills and knowledge already within their gates.