A tongue-tied time warp

October 13, 1995

British foreign language learning policy lags behind the rest of Europe and must be updated, argues Robert Clark.

As I took plane to Stockholm for the European Commission's conference on "Language Studies in Higher Education in Europe" I recalled Norman Lamont on the radio that morning saying "Europe is yesterday's idea". Mr Lamont's historical insight is like that shown by our Government in the 1950s when it dismissed the project for European union. The British vacillated, other Europeans got on with the job, and it now seems likely that "the European idea" will last a little longer than Lamont imagines.

One reason is that a good understanding of at least two foreign languages is becoming the norm in Europe, whereas it has been decided that one foreign language will do for the British. Sweden makes a striking contrast: the under secretary of state addressed the conference in excellent, witty English. At the end of the conference the mayor of Stockholm capped this by shifting through five major languages and closing with perfect Schweizerdeutsch. It seems in Sweden, as in Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany, everyone under 30 speaks excellent English and professionals pride themselves on their multilingualism.

This does not come by geographical accident. According to the 16 national reports delivered to the conference from the Sigma Scientific Committee on Languages it is more than likely that the young woman speaking such excellent English has a similar fluency in French and German or Spanish. In the Netherlands all secondary students have Dutch, English, German and French. In Switzerland they have German, French, English and Italian or Spanish or Russian. And so it goes on. The idea of the monolingual nation seems a relic of 19th-century imperialism. Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland recognise the rights of citizens in some areas to communicate in a language other than the national one. Plurilingualism is enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht as the basis of European linguistic policy. Only in Britain and France is there an intolerant obsession with a "standard national language".

One consequence of the respect for "non-standard languages" and the energy put into foreign language learning is that about half the young people in continental Europe can speak with their neighbours. That the speaking may at times be inelegant is much less important than that they can read their neighbours' newspapers, understand their television, research their markets and sense what it is like to be a native. Talking in someone else's language is also good politics. It communicates respect.

Since the language nearly everyone studies as their first foreign language is English, we can argue that our foreign language learning policy is wise. Continental children spend nine to 13 years learning a lingua franca which we have by right. Our children can use the same time better. This is nonsense. For one thing the time "saved" may well be spent playing video games. For another, the foreign children have the great benefit of being easily able to see the point of the exercise, and so are highly motivated. Learning English pays, and pays them better than it pays us to learn French. It is therefore a better investment for the state, and like all productive learning a general good for the student: it assists their self-esteem and sense of their own potential.

The advantages pile up. Learning a language is to learn in some ways to think differently. People who shift tongues make better alliances, are more able to compromise and to imagine alternative scenarios.

Where does this leave us? Further and further behind. What is needed is a radical linguistic policy and huge investment: two foreign languages for all children, starting one at age seven, the other at age nine, with a choice of vocational or academic streams from 12 for pupils with different career inclinations. By 2005 there should be no entry to university without two foreign languages. If we did this now then by 2025 we might be where many countries will be in 2000. Merely 25 years behind!

Robert Clark is secretary of the European Society for the Study of English, and senior lecturer in English literature, University of East Anglia.

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