Cameron’s careless Chinese whispers

December 19, 2013

On 5 December, during an official visit to China, Prime Minister David Cameron was widely reported to have advised UK school pupils to “look beyond…French and German” and to start Mandarin lessons instead. Government funding for teacher training in Mandarin will follow, and 60 British headteachers will be invited to fly to China on study visits during 2014.

While we welcome the prime minister’s (belated) public support for language learning in schools, we are dismayed at his advocacy of a headlong exit from French and German. Cameron’s advice flies in the face of evidence on the relative value of European languages to British culture, business and society. Repeated surveys by the Department for Education, the British Council, the Confederation of British Industry and other bodies have stressed the benefits of the languages to the UK economy.

In a CBI report released earlier this year, for example, French and German were identified as the two most important foreign languages for business and trade. While recognising the importance of Mandarin as the most significant emerging business language, the survey notes: “France and Germany still represent – along with the US – the largest export markets for British goods.” Hence the continuing high demand for European languages among UK employers, with French and German respectively named as crucial by 49 per cent and 45 per cent of businesses seeking graduates with language skills.

Commenting that the UK holds the unenviable record of possessing “the worst foreign language skills in Europe”, the CBI further notes that the limitations this places on “cultural awareness” act “in effect as a tax on UK trade”.

The Department for Education has echoed this emphasis on the benefits of language skills to business, but it also stresses their importance to broader cultural understanding. In the department’s National Curriculum in England framework document, published in September, a broad range of language competence is described as offering “liberation from insularity” – hence the government’s decision to make language learning compulsory at Key Stage 2, as well as its introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which includes a compulsory modern language component.

So studying French and/or German at school and at university continues to be valued by government and industry as a means not only to seal business deals but also to gain knowledge and experience of other cultures. As university teachers, we know that the study of a language entails the acquisition of skills way beyond transactional communication; indeed, that communication can only function on the basis of the social and cultural knowledge acquired through the kind of in-depth study that is embedded in European language degrees. The current round of consultations on future GCSE, AS and A2 specifications points towards the recovery of some of what has been lost in this regard over the past few years.

Cameron’s careless knee-jerk comments show an ignorance of the real concerns in the public sector about the decline of language skills, considered in the broadest sense; they also threaten to derail the positive process in which his own government as well as the CBI, the British Academy, the GCSE and A-level boards, and many other stakeholders are involved.

Erica Carter, head of German
Patrick ffrench, head of French
King’s College London

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