The Meissen Commission finished its five-year work period on Monday and our report will now be completed and published in due course. The new Commission will begin work in the new year, completing its work in 2016 – leading into Germany’s Reformation Year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
In a podcast recorded at the German Embassy last Thursday evening I referred to the deplorable state of language teaching and learning in England. This was picked up by several newspapers and has gained some wider comment.
In fact, I wasn’t criticising teachers. Language teaching in our schools is heroic. But, many teachers feel they are fighting a losing battle against cultural and political forces that are rooted in an island mentality. We might understand the emphasis on science and technology in schools, but the relegation of language learning to a not-very-enthusiastically-encouraged poor option says much about the British understanding of identity, communication and business.
First, language learning is essential to a good and broad education. Simply to be able to read or listen in one’s own language is severely limiting to potential. As Helmut Schmidt wrote in his marvellous book Ausser Dienst, no politician should think of entering the Bundestag (Parliament) unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, says Schmidt, you can’t understand your own culture unless you have looked at it through the eyes of another culture. And, to do that, you have to know something of the other language.
I said this to Ken Livingstone in a television studio last year and he laughed and said that we wouldn’t have any politicians in the UK. I thought that spoke volumes.
Second, we are disadvantaged in the business world with which we seem in this country to be obsessed. As I said in the podcast, business isn’t all done in English over the table; the real stuff goes on behind your back and if you can’t understand what they’re saying privately, you’re stuffed. It is appalling that we produce so few professional linguists, but – more seriously – we don’t produce ordinary business people who can cope with a foreign language.
Third, we Brits seem to find language learning too hard. Yet, we have Asian kids in our schools who move easily and unselfconsciously between two, three or four languages.
Fourth, we have a political class that is narrowly focused on an economic prejudice that concentrates on technique and technology as if they could stand independently of wider linguistic, communication or cultural factors. Language learning is being presented as less important than other studies, ignoring the importance not only of ‘knowing stuff’, but also ‘being able to communicate it’.
This isn’t special pleading by a one-time linguist. It stands for itself as an important cultural deficit in England. And, not only are we depriving our own children and young people of a vital dimension of human living, but also we are shrinking the cohort of potential language teachers for future generations.
It is serious and needs some intelligent attention.
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