Excusez-moi, etes vous un terroriste?

March 29, 2002

In the US, national language competence is being fast-tracked post September11. But here, we're planning to let pupils drop foreign language learning at 14. This linguistic complacency is dangerous warns Michael Kelly, who believes it crucial we inspire people to learn new tongues.

To widespread astonishment, the government has announced proposals to make foreign languages an optional subject for pupils in England after the age of 14. At the same time, governments in the rest of Europe are ramping up requirements for their citizens to learn more languages in schools. Do they know something our government does not?

Six months after the attack on the World Trade Center, it looks as if that wake-up call has still not registered in this country. Perhaps we should take a pointer from the United States, where plans to build up national competence in languages are being fast-tracked. In the past month, for example, email lists have carried an offer of job opportunities for 35 linguists in Baltimore County, Maryland, particularly for specialists in Asian, Middle Eastern and Slavic languages. No doubt the American Department of Defense training college there has fairly specific needs, but it does signal that they now realise the disastrous fallacy of thinking that "English is enough".

The fatal flaw is that English works effectively for us in one direction only, that is, in transmit mode. If you speak only English, you can be sure that plenty of people out there will understand what you are saying. But in receive mode, if you are tuned in solely to English, you will hear only what others choose to let you know. The rest is just white noise to you. The mighty US now realises that it has to reverse its dangerous linguistic complacency. So how can a middle-ranking power such as the UK expect to play a pivotal role internationally if its people speak only English and a bit of third-form French?

The lessons of September 11 go a long way beyond military or diplomatic preparedness. They teach us that we can pay a heavy price for not making the effort to understand what is happening around us. It is a lesson worth learning because most of the time we do not even realise we are paying a price.

The point is beginning to be recognised in the business community. Department of Trade and Industry studies suggest that UK companies could be losing as much as 20 per cent of their business because they lack language skills. The most alert firms are making sure they do have employees with languages. It is just a pity that they so often have to go abroad to recruit them. Luckily (for companies) there are plenty of highly qualified people elsewhere who have excellent English as well as their own language (and probably a couple of other languages on top). Not so lucky for the home-grown workforce, poorly prepared to meet the challenge. We have known for ten or 15 years that globalisation goes hand in hand with localisation. "Think global, act local" is the motto. International corporations make sure they mould themselves to the language and culture of the places in which they work. But we have been slower to recognise that languages are important for citizenship. September 11 and its aftermath have taught us that other languages and cultures are not just "out there" in faraway places. They are also "in here", in every town and village, in our schools and in our shops, as well as on our television and radio. And it is not just tourists. We are no longer surprised when events thousands of miles away have immediate repercussions on our own lives and on those of our neighbours at home. We can see reports of Afghan refugees in camps on the Pakistan border on the evening news, and the following morning we can be queuing next to an Afghan refugee in our local supermarket. We are all citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. Unless we can engage with other cultures we cannot help to shape our world as active citizens.

The trouble is that all of this is hard. Ars longa, vita brevis . Life is short, but it takes time and effort to learn a new language and understand a new culture. How can we overcome the short-term pain of learning languages and secure the long-term advantages it brings?

There are two directions, closely intertwined: motivation and compulsion. Motivation is the easy route. Think of a youngster taking up skateboarding. He or she wants to soar up ramps and slide gracefully down handrails, and will practise for months or years, collecting painful falls, cuts and bruises along the way. Learning Spanish is painless by comparison. On the other hand, only a minority of youngsters will want to try skateboarding or persist with it. But that is no problem, since the future of the country does not depend on it.

With activities on which the future of the country does depend, the path of motivation is rarely sufficient. It would be interesting, for example, to read of the chancellor seeking to motivate people to take up taxpaying. No one doubts that the state has a duty to compel people to do things they might not spontaneously choose. Likewise, in school, there are subjects thought sufficiently crucial that pupils should be obliged to study them. They are not left to the motivation of pupils, teachers or parents. It seems extraordinary that languages are being taken out of that group of subjects for 14-year-olds.

Of course, compulsion is not enough either. A more motivated student is likely to learn more effectively. A lot of work has been done to improve the pleasure and relevance of language learning at all levels, even if more needs to be done. But most countries around the world are rapidly increasing the extent to which school children and university students are compelled to study foreign languages. They know that the future of their country cannot be left purely to the vagaries of motivation, or to the market, on this issue. From the point of view of higher education, leaving the market to regulate school language learning at 14-16 will accelerate the existing decline in student applications to study languages degrees. It will increase the rate at which language departments are being closed and further reduce the numbers of UK students going into school teaching in languages. Language degrees could be confined to a handful of the more prestigious universities, and foreign language competence could become even more identified as an elite accomplishment. It is obvious to most middle-class families that their children will need languages to make their way in a multilingual world. And they will make the necessary investment. But less well-off families will find it more difficult to make the sacrifices without which their children could find themselves tongue-tied and marginalised by comparison. To remedy this, universities will find more students trying to make up their language deficit by taking optional language courses as part of a degree in another subject. This is already a booming area, but ironically the keenest participants are often foreign students adding to their existing linguistic repertoire - Chinese students learning Japanese, for example.

Does the government recognise the seriousness of our language plight? Certainly ministers talk as if they do. Prime minister Tony Blair leads by example, using his fluent French, competent German and more than a smattering of Italian, apparently. Ministers have been repeatedly encouraged to take the issue seriously by concerned friends of this country, including the ambassadors of France, German, Italy and Spain, who have offered various kinds of support. The government has responded to the hard-hitting Nuffield report by setting up an interdepartmental committee, chaired by Baroness Ashton, with the remit of drawing up a national strategy for languages. And there is a promise of more access to languages in English primary schools.

With every evidence of a strong commitment to extending languages, it is hard to understand why the government is proposing pulling the rug in the crucial teenage years. It is true there are problems of motivation, especially with some teenage boys. And there is a lot of scope for improving the curriculum. But there are also sparkling successes in schools and a lot of bright ideas for how to do it better. There is too much at stake for us to give in on this: not only the prosperity of our trading relations, but our ability to make a difference in the world. Allez les Anglais, encore un effort !

Michael Kelly is director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centre for languages, linguistics and area studies, University of Southampton.

Details: www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk

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