Meeting Archbishop Elias Chacour again last week at his home in Haifa, I was reminded about his ability to speak eleven languages. He frequently questions those people who claim to be unable (or unwilling) to learn the language of someone else. His main reason is that the inability to speak (or at least understand) more than your own native language imprisons you from the richness of seeing through other eyes and thinking through other minds. It is diminishing. In Israel-Palestine it becomes a matter of life and death.
This is not new. I have written before about Helmut Schmidt‘s call to (German) politicians to have at least two foreign languages in their skill bank. When I mentioned this to Ken Livingstone (former Mayor of London) in a television studio in December, he laughed and said that we would have no politicians in Parliament if this was enforced. This is funny – but it is also disastrous.
I studied German and French at the University of Bradford from 1976-1980. Bradford was leading the way in a degree that put heavy emphasis on the spoken language, translation and interpreting. But it was made clear to new students on day one that there is no point being able to speak a language if you have nothing to say in it. It was an excellent and demanding course and one I was not very good at: unlike some of my colleagues, I was never a natural linguist and had to work hard at it, often with not much confidence.
Yesterday I discovered that the University of Bradford has discontinued both its undergraduate courses in Modern Languages and its postgraduate course in Interpreting and Translating. The reason? Not enough young people are learning foreign languages or wanting to study them at university level. To make matters worse, I was told recently that the EU in Brussels is now having to employ non-native English linguists as interpreters (you always work into your own language) because of the lack of suitably qualified linguists from the UK.
This is dire, short-sighted and in need of serious challenge. Even being pragmatic about it, the inability of British people to speak foreign languages already disadvantages them in a globalising economy. Yet, successive governments have put little emphasis on language-learning and now relegate it to the ‘not-very-important’ slot in the curriculum.
Contrast this with the remarkable address given by JK Rowling to academics, parents and graduating students at Harvard in which she addresses ‘failure’ and ‘imagination’ in an example of excellent communication, superb writing and intelligent reflection.