Letters: Languages

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Gove fights for languages

Michael Gove's plans to consider a new baccalaureate certificate ("Baccalaureate planned to reverse the decline in modern languages", 6 September) and combat the flight from languages should be warmly applauded. He rightly said that lack of language learning "not only breeds insularity, it means an integral part of the brain's learning capacity rusts unused".

The repercussions of the last government's decision to remove the requirement to study another language to GCSE level are becoming clearer by the day. In our report Language Matters last year, the British Academy warned of the snowball effect on university language departments, and the long-term damage it will inflict on the international nature of modern research across all disciplines. Since then the situation has plainly worsened, with lower than ever take up of language GCSEs and further closures of university posts and departments.

Any moves to help reverse this dismal trend, which damages UK skills and research, and the UK's international competitiveness, deserve support. They cannot come too soon.

Professor Sir Adam Roberts

President, the British Academy, London SW1

A certificate for 16-year-olds in five subjects A*-C including English, Maths, a science, a foreign language and a humanity seems a good idea, and it is encouraging that the Coalition Government is minded to restore modern languages to the 14-16 curriculum.

But to dignify this suggested qualification with the name Baccalaureate seems absurd. It cannot be compared to the International Baccalaureate, taken by 18-year-olds, but would certainly be confused with the IB. It could be called the Junior Baccalaureate, I suppose, or the Certificate of General Academic Achievement. Any other ideas?

Susan Chesters


When our British 16-year-olds meet their German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch or French contemporaries on some European beach, the English teenagers realise immediately how incompetent is their understanding and performance in whatever foreign language they have just "successfully" completed to the graded satisfaction of various competing GCSE examination boards. Spontaneous conversation, sustained understanding of the spoken langauge or of compound sentences in a written text are beyond all but a few .

This realisation is a major cause of the decline in foreign languages, especially in English state schools. It cascades from sibling to younger sibling.

Another reason is the fact that a teacher with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) is entitled to teach any National Curriculum subject in any age range in any state school. In other words thousands of English pupils are doubtless being taught a foreign langauge by a teacher for whom the language is perhaps almost as foreign as it is to them.

No amount of re-branding (the misnomer "Baccalaureate" for example), no amount of grade inflation and no amount of increased "accessibility" of examination questions will conceal learners' awareness of their own inadequacy. It is not the fault of the pupils. It is the fault of whatever agencies allow so-called classroom management concerns to be considered more important than profound and expert subject knowledge.

I have taught German for almost 40 years in English and Scottish state schools and in the independent sector. I take no pleasure in suggesting that in about 10 years effective foreign language teaching will almost be the preserve of independent schools .

John P Nolan

Dunfermline, Fife

Through vagaries of life and diligence, I have gained fluency in five languages, including Polish, Russian, French and Spanish.

The first was my native tongue. Russian helped me to survive the gulag. French and Spanish were more than useful in my cultural life and commercial career. But English has been a sine qua non throughout nearly nine decades of my life. It is the nearest thing to a lingua franca.

Alas, in common with all those who have been taught Received Pronunciation English, I find the versions of language spoken in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Glasgow incomprehensible. While I accept cultural and commercial merits of acquiring other languages, our children must, first and foremost, learn to speak a universally acknowledged version of English!

John Romer

London W5

While we may not be natural linguists (and foreigners are surely helped by being surrounded by pop music, Hollywood films, shop signs and advertising hoardings in English) we are leaders in multi-numeracy. I recently put 45 litres of fuel in my car after a 900km journey, and calculated that I was achieving about 56 miles per gallon, before heading off to buy two metres of three-quarter-inch tubing.

Richard Charnley

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Housing cuts start to bite

In June the Government announced a cut of £230m from the budget of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the non-governmental organisation responsible for funding social housing programmes. The HCA was also warned of a further £610m in cuts from its budget. Now, only weeks later, Connaught plc, one of the leading social housing builders is falling into administration.

The Chancellor's cut in the social housing budget has exacerbated Connaught's difficulties, as the HCA directly funds social housing programmes, such as those built by Connaught.

This government is on the brink of leading us into one of the biggest housing slumps in 40 years as the reduction of Housing Benefit next year will also see private landlords withdrawing their homes from the rental market, as benefit tenants fall behind with their rent. The reduction in the social housing programme, as a consequence of the Government's budget cuts, will see even fewer affordable homes placed on the market to alleviate the housing shortage.

The future for housing for those on low incomes is starting to look very grim indeed.

Henry Page

Newhaven, East Sussex

Raid on Vichy Lebanon

Robert Fisk, as always, tells a good yarn ("On the trail of a dead British major in Vichy Lebanon", 4 September). But the fate of Major Anthony Palmer and the 23 Jewish Haganah fighters who disappeared in a fishing boat in the Eastern Mediterranean in May 1941 during an attempt to destroy the Vichy French oil refinery at Tripoli, Lebanon, remains one of the more enduring mysteries of the Second World War.

It is hardly surprising that Fisk failed in Tripoli to find the mass graves his Israeli colonel was searching for some 40 years after the event. There is no evidence that they ever landed. And if Major Palmer had been captured it would have been out of character for the Vichy French to shoot him out of hand.

During my research for England's Last War Against France I discovered that 66 officer prisoners captured by the French before their surrender in Syria and Lebanon had been sent to Salonika in German-occupied Greece, where Vichy had been allowed to establish a logistics base. The British responded by making it plain that none of the senior French officers they had taken would be repatriated until the 66 were released, and this did the trick.

They came back to Beirut by way of Toulon, with a strange tale of a seven-day rail journey across Hitler's Europe under French guard, passing through Belgrade, Zagreb, Salzburg, Munich, Ulm and Dijon before entering Vichy France.

Had the fishing boat Sea Lion ever reached the shores of Tripoli, Palmer might well have been among them.

Colin Smith

Nicosia, Cyprus

The poorest do not migrate

Michael McGuffie (letter, 6 September) links immigration controls with people being kept in poverty in the third world. This is not the case.

Immigration controls on legal routes to the UK do not affect the poorest people, as they would be required to pay for flights, visas and, in the case of students, their study programme. Illegal immigration often requires a payment to exploitative traffickers. Lax enforcement of immigration controls encourages illegal attempts that can end in the sort of tragedy mentioned in Mr McGuffie's letter.

Opening up our borders is not the solution, because of the vast numbers of people involved. Better to have well-published strong controls that would deter would-be illegal migrants while taking firm measures to encourage development of a kind that will help the poorest in third-world countries.

Matthew Pollard

Executive Director Migrationwatch UK

London SW1

Like Dominic Lawson (7 September), I too have had the misfortune of losing my passport in Amsterdam and having to be cleared back into the UK by the immigration authorities. I also found it a relatively painless process.

Had my or Mr Lawson's ethnic origin resembled that of his north African taxi driver though, would he have found the UK border officials so accommodating?

James Lowe

London SW3

Faith, science and Hawking

So, Stephen Hawking has pronounced that "philosophy is dead". What he fails to realise is that science is dead without certain metaphysical assumptions to underpin it.

For example how can you conduct science without a belief in consciousness, the laws of logic and reasoning, the reality of the external world, or a relationship between the mind and the outside world? None of these assumptions can be proven scientifically, yet they are all reasonable.

The birth of modern science took place in the context of fundamental metaphysical assumptions about the reasonableness of the universe which came out of theism.

Furthermore the statement "Philosophy is dead" is not an empirically verifiable scientific statement; it is a philosophical statement and therefore self-refuting.

Alan Darley


The Rev Kim Fabricius (letter, 6 September) gives a fair attempt at an apologia that will enable faith to sidestep science – but it fails.

Perhaps, the most significant claim in Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design is that "philosophy is dead", as it has not kept up with modern developments in science. One of these developments is the understanding of chaos and the role of self-organisation in evolution. This comprehensively refutes the claim that anything is preordained or predestined or purposeful; rather everything is spontaneous, random and novel. So there is no Grand Designer and nothing of reality can be indicative of design.

Suffering is, for humans, the experience of this state of reality which betrays the claims of both rationality and theodicy. Those who seek to make claims to the contrary, however fervent, are merely expressing the consequences of human imagination, rather than intuiting reality.

Dominic Kirkham


Suppose Stephen Hawking is wrong. Does the existence of the universe prove the existence of God? To a believer, the question of why God exists must be an insoluble mystery. To a non-believer, the question of why the universe exists must be an insoluble mystery. Occam's Razor applies: other things being equal, the simpler view, requiring the postulation of one less entity and therefore the acceptance of one less insoluble mystery, should be preferred.

Ken Cohen

London NW6

Can the obvious human spiritual need be answered in a benign, non-religious way (letter, 6 September)?

I thought that it already was: you simply give the problem a name, such as "God". It's a standard scientific procedure: how well I recall wasting my distant youthful time wondering just what the chemical constant "activity" really was, when all that I needed to know in order to get on with more interesting aspects of my life was that, for the time being, it made necessary calculations work.

Ailson Sutherland

St Ola, Orkney

One thing science has shown is the vastness of the universe, in both time and space, placing humankind on a tiny speck, for a minimal blip of time. While I can understand that faith exists without proof of any scientific sort, the three main world religions still seem to have humans as the focus of a god's creation. It is this continuing arrogance in the face of our clear insignificance that I find hard to understand.

Vivienne Cox

London W4

London under Nazi bombing

With due respects to Jenny Cosgrave and her short history of the London Blitz (3 September), that was only the Docks and the City of London. It was by no means the end of the bombing of London.

I was in London during her Blitz in 1940-41, but joined the WAAF and was stationed in Hampshire. Coming home on short passes later in the war, I often had the taxi driver stop and say: "It's one of them doodle-bugs!"

Later, when I was stationed in Essex "them doodle-bugs" – the V1 missiles – were still chugging over our heads to London each night.

Although it was nothing like Coventry, please don't underestimate the bombing of London.

June D Troy

London, NW8

I'm afraid you made a mistake in the column about the Blitz, when you referred to an "1,800 megaton bomb" deployed by the Luftwaffe. "Megaton" cannot of course be applied to High Explosive (HE) devices because it is a relative measure of an atomic explosion – equivalent to one million tons of HE. I suspect you actually meant "kilogram" – 1800kg would be within the capabilities of He-111 or Ju- 88 aircraft in 1940.

Brian Clapham

Cobham, Surrey

Principled MP

Sir Cyril Smith (obituary, 4 September) was far more than Mr Rochdale. He represented ordinary people battling the system, whether it was run by big business or powerful unions. He appealed to the independent-minded working and middle class across Britain, because he talked common sense and stuck to his principles. Standing up for what you believe in is one thing. To do so no matter what the personal cost is something else again.

Rupert Hugh Emerson

Hazelbury Bryan, Dorset

Just a rumour

What a confused and hypocritical society Britain has become. We put in place stringent legislation to prohibit discrimination against gay people. Yet at the very same time, when a public figure such as William Hague is said to be gay, albeit without any facts whatsoever, the rumour is given widest publicity.

Peter Trewett


Perspectives on the Blair memoirs

Fountain pen defies the modern world

Perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most endearing thing to emerge from the publicity surrounding the publication of Tony Blair's memoirs was the film clip of him writing out his recollections in longhand using – wait for it! – a fountain pen.

In the book itself he admits that he knew little, if anything, about information technology and had to be given some basic lessons it is by the nerdy David Miliband before meeting Bill Gates. Three cheers for Tony! In this respect at least, if not perhaps in all others, I sense a kindred spirit.

Yet was it not his government which preached incessantly about the importance of us all being "wired up" to the information superhighway lest we all turn into ignorant proles stumbling around in the dark, not to mention transforming many of our schools into something resembling call centres? No doubt there were plenty of bright young things conversant with the new technology in the No 10 office only too keen to keep up with all their leader's emails, but did they not realise they were creating a dangerous prime ministerial dependency culture?

Or did Tony, with his famous easy charm and excellent interpersonal skills even with the likes of the Rev Ian Paisley, secretly harbour doubts about the internet, intuitively seeing it for what it is, a way of making the way we relate to each other more distant, virtual and remote, less personal and human? I think we should be told. Long live fountain pens!

K G Banks

Maidstone, kent

Sign here, please

As an author with a stock of books at Waterstone's Piccadilly, I would like to give notice that I am willing to replace Tony Blair for his book signing there. I am sure that other authors who write from an anti-war perspective would want to join me. Waterstone's can be assured that we won't bottle out; we're made of sterner stuff.

Edward Wilson

Chediston, Suffolk