Britain trumpets diversity yet persists in its campaign of cultural ring-fencing

Glyn Hambrook catalogues the benefits and joys of mastering a foreign tongue, a skill that opens the door to a network of international contacts

October 21, 2010

Most of us, I'll wager, have had conversations about what we would have done in another life.

Among graduates, a variation on this theme concerns what degree they would have studied instead of the one they did. I for one recall musing over alternatives on several occasions, not least when storm clouds were gathering on the professional horizon. However, I always came back to realising I was happy with what I had studied and, as time goes on, my sense of satisfaction with the choice I made has strengthened into a conviction that it was both the right one and the best.

To refer to my decision as a choice disguises an element of predestination. When I applied, and was accepted, to study French and Spanish at university in 1973, I had already studied these two languages for seven and six years respectively, and had also acquired O levels in Italian and Latin. Languages seemed to be in my genes. I went on to complete a PhD in comparative literature on a topic I would have been unable to explore credibly without knowledge of these languages, and I eventually had the good fortune to be appointed to a lectureship that required me to teach both French and Spanish.

The department that I joined back in 1981 was still new enough to be driven by a clear sense of purpose. Vibrant and buoyant, its staff were enthusiastic, committed and, in a collective sense, ambitious. Student numbers were growing, new staff posts were being created and there were already signs of the national pre-eminence that the department was to acquire at the height of its achievement about a decade later. I recall a time when Hispanic studies was taught by a community of 12 staff, and when colleagues in French numbered 11.

But then modern languages in higher education started to go into decline, and at an alarming rate. Student numbers in my department started to fall dramatically. Things spiralled downwards: courses were rationalised or closed; subjects' portfolios were pruned radically; colleagues were redeployed, invited to retrain, or took up offers of voluntary redundancy; departmental mergers led to a depleted sense of community.

Looking back now, the past decade seems like an ongoing, relentless battle to survive in some guise or another. It has been a fight waged, like that of the Spanish Republic after the battle of the Ebro, for the most part in continual retreat. There were no victories, only mitigated defeats. To give this bellicose metaphor a naval inflection, I have jumped from a torpedoed flagship of modern languages into the lifeboat of European literature. When this vessel broke up under the pounding of the persistent storm, I struggled on to a raft lashed together from any buoyant debris from the cosmopolitan fleet, languishing adrift until I was plucked from the sea by English studies, a sturdy aircraft carrier with a benign and welcoming crew, but from a navy at times unexpectedly alien, whose allegiance to the flag of the Lands of the Chosen Language sometimes still catches me off guard. From its deck I watch with growing despondency as the provision of foreign languages in higher education withdraws into a decreasing number of safe havens, many of them, I suspect, provisional.

Last year, degree programmes in the two languages I was originally employed to teach were closed in my own university as part of a "repositioning strategy".

In this context, I occasionally have encountered the implicit or sometimes explicit assumption by acquaintances that modern languages was an unfortunate choice of specialism to make, and even that I must regret having done so.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. My enjoyment of the use and study of foreign languages as well as my conviction of their usefulness and life-enhancing properties remain undiminished and have even intensified. Let us consider some reasons for my attitude in the face of others' scepticism.

In the first instance, even in my current situation within a unit that studies and teaches literature written in one language, where one might be tempted to think that knowledge of foreign languages is redundant or irrelevant, I can contribute a perspective informed by a translingual and transnational experience of what literature is and does. I can read in the original at least some of the non-anglophone literary texts that merit a place in the syllabus - I am not always constrained to rely on translation, and in my reading of criticism I am not confined to what only anglophones have to say about literatures in English.

Furthermore, my competence in foreign languages honed in a higher education environment has opened the door to international contacts and networks of various kinds, and has been instrumental in developing and sustaining these links. What is more, without this competence I would not have access to opportunities for collaboration that take place in a realm beyond, and to a degree remain immune to, the vicissitudes of life in UK higher education and the confines of national agendas. It is doubtful that the experience I consider to have been the most rewarding and enjoyable of my career, a three-month visiting fellowship to the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, would have materialised if I had not been a Hispanist and Spanish-speaker as well as a member of an English subject group.

Finally, should I have reason to feel less than sanguine about my prospects at work, I will find solace in the knowledge that studying languages has equipped me with professionally applicable skills, such as translating, and created options, such as transnational mobility, that may well prove invaluable in providing practical and effective solutions to the insecurities that I would face if the current professional floor collapsed beneath my feet.

This potential leads me to reflect on the personal advantages and benefits - too numerous and diverse to record here in their entirety - that have been a direct consequence of being able to use foreign languages to a high level: the profound and enduring friendships to which my knowledge of languages has been a catalyst, the experience of direct engagement with other cultures, the trust and respect that being able to address others in their own language inspires, the opportunities of which I would not have been able to avail myself or make open to others, the assistance that knowing languages enabled me to offer. From my pool of languages I have often been able to draw one shared with interlocutors as unfamiliar with my native language as I with theirs. And knowing some foreign languages has made it easier to get a foothold in new ones when there has been an incentive to do so. The list could go on indefinitely.

I have the impression that Britain is, in general terms, an environment that is becoming increasingly uncongenial for those who see multilingualism as a virtue. It trumpets its celebration of diversity, yet persists in its relentless campaign of cultural ring-fencing. It seems oblivious to the cost. Figures produced by the European Commission reveal that the UK has the second highest number of citizens - 62 per cent - whose only European language is their national one, for the majority, their mother tongue - while reports and position papers in the UK, US and Australia make patent the disadvantages, in terms of professional quality and opportunity, for researchers who can work only in English.

In this regard, Britain today does not really offer the kind of cultural and educational environment I feel entirely comfortable or happy to be part of, but for the moment at least, I choose to fight against the trend rather than to surrender to it. I offer this personal testimony of the merits of language learning in that spirit and by way of a complement to other articles and letters that have considered the UK's foreign language "deficit" from a strategic, academic or pedagogical perspective.

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