Talk is cheap

April 8, 2010

I doubt David Lammy and Diana Johnson could put forward a coherent argument for the importance of foreign language learning in relation to business competitiveness: the UK's main non-European trading partners are scrambling to learn English and attend British and American universities to do so ("Monoglottal stop", www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 5 April).

This is not to say that foreign languages aren't important, but rather that the business argument is not an appropriate one for foreign language learning in primary and secondary schools.

The other suggestions in the article are sensible, but also unsubstantiated; how many British citizens work in Europe and use foreign language rather than English language skills? How can the UK's research reputation decline due to the dearth of foreign language skills when most journals of significance are published in English and English is the most widespread second language in the world?

Likewise, it is all well and good saying that "75 per cent of the world's population do not speak or understand English at all", but why is using the world's population a useful argument for educational reform in an island of 60 million people?

Lammy and Johnson say that "if UK students lack the right skills, they could find themselves struggling to compete for jobs in high-value, high-skills businesses and industries". However, less than half of all secondary students get five good GCSEs; why are foreign language skills so important? Explain the usefulness of these skills to British workers, most of whom will work and die in the UK.

Let us consider the academy: universities' foreign language departments are closing; Erasmus participation rates are low; the Arts and Humanities Research Council is severely underfunded; and postgraduate funding in general is terrible.

Unlike most other European countries (and the US), the UK is unwilling to fund students who move outside Britain (let's not patronise them and suggest that career development loans are viable funding solutions).

In summary, Lammy and Johnson cannot or are unwilling to put their money where their mouth is. It's talk, talk, talk.

Richard Armstrong (via the internet).

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