There was something about the recent spectacle of Steve McClaren, the manager of the Dutch team FC Twente, being interviewed by a local TV channel which seemed to sum up our confused national relationship with foreign languages. Here was an Englishman who had accepted a relatively high-profile job in mainland Europe. But instead of attempting to learn to communicate in the local language, he had simply decided to speak English to the interviewer in a Dutch accent.
We found it funny here, but if the decline of foreign language studying continues, the former England manager will not be the last Briton to find his lack of linguistic skills exposed in such a brutal way.
Last week we drew some encouragement from the fact that the numbers of students studying French and Spanish at A-level has increased, after many years of decline. But the new figures we report today on language studies at university level seem to take us back to square one. The number of undergraduates studying German has plummeted to just 610 students, down from 2,288 a decade ago. French students have declined to 3,700, down from 5,655 in 1998. The monoglot habits of English speakers appear to be entrenching themselves.
As this newspaper has often pointed out, this is not a trend our educational establishment can afford to treat with equanimity. The benefits of learning a foreign language at school and university level lie not merely in facilitating direct communication with a particular people, but also in the development of a set of learning skills that a student retains through their life. Learn French at school and one should find it easier to apply oneself to learning Spanish when sent to, say, Mexico, by an employer.
The principle that studying a language is valuable in itself is one that the Government should hold in the front of its mind. It should encourage the establishment of degree courses in Urdu, Cantonese, Punjabi and Bengali, which tens of thousands of English children already speak as a second language – anything to ensure that the study of foreign languages does not die out in the education system. The alternative is for us to suffer all the embarrassment and disadvantages of a nation of monoglots in a polyglot world.