Language


Still away on holiday, I get back to wifi-land and get pointed to an article in yesterday's Observer newspaper. It seems that language learning in England, rather than getting stronger, is melting like snow. And all that those responsible for UK universities can say in response is that this is the way the market works: supply and demand.

So, fewer children learn a foreign language. Fewer take examinations in a foreign language at GCSE and A Level. The number of universities offering degree courses in modern languages will have halved in just over a decade. And the UK is shamelessly unembarrassed about producing generations of people who speak only their own native language. This is shocking.

I bang on about this stuff frequently – just put “language” in the search on this blog to find them. Not because I think I think language learning should be privileged over other disciplines, but because, if access to all disciplines is through the medium of language, then language learning is hugely important.

I am about to go out, so here is the Observer's report from yesterday and here a comment piece from David Bellos. I would simply add the following at this point:

  • Not learning a foreign language deprives people of a whole dimension of culture: communication, arts, translation 'depth';
  • We ignore the Schmidt doctrine: that we can only understand our own culture if we look through the lens of another culture… and that means knowing something of the other's language;
  • Losing our linguists seriously disadvantages the UK economically and politically – we never know what they are really saying behind our backs;
  • We reveal ourselves to be culturally arrogant;

Add to this the following and you begin to see the problem:

  • Do we really believe that every discipline should simply be left to the market in shaping what sort of country we are and what sort of people we think we should be growing through our education system? Are we really that random? Are we really that culturally illiterate already?

Yes, I would say this, wouldn't I?

But, I have also just spent a week with great Swiss friends who easily move between several languages; go into any bar or restaurant in obscure little northern Italian villages and the local waitresses will move between languages without show or embarrassment.

We should be ashamed. More to the point, however, we should be deeply worried about where we are heading and why.

 

Isn't it a crying shame that the Guide Movement didn't read Lord Sacks' Spectator piece on the (not-so) new atheistm before evacuating the Girl Guide Promise of meaning and filling it with vacuous nonsense?

Mention of God has gone, replaced by “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. Which, no doubt, will please anyone who thinks there is such a thing as a 'neutral', content-free or assumptionless language or worldview. It beggars belief.

Does it really mean that any belief will do – á la Joseph's 'any dream will do' nonsense? Really any belief? Or only those deemed acceptable… by whom… and on what basis?

Content-free language does not create neutral self-consciousness; it merely empties all language of meaning. And that does not create safe little altruistic models of moderation; it opens the door to little Hitlers as well as Snow Whites.

Even those who are glad to see God go must be embarrassed by what has replaced him.

 

I know I am on holiday and only get internet access if I nip into a local bar, but…

No sooner had Samira Ahmed lamented in the Guardian the decline of German language learning in England's schools, but then Viv Groskop did a similar job in the Independent. She broadens the lament into an exposé of English ineptitude when it comes to the learning of any language. Try this demystification of the art:

In reality, it's not so difficult to acquire a language. You learn a foreign language the same way you learn to speak as a child: it requires constant practice and voluntary humiliation. And you don't have to read Proust. You can just talk to people.

Which, after all, is how Johnny Foreigner manages to acquire an embarrassing facility with English:

… all over the world people speak all kinds of weird but perfectly understandable versions of 'Globish' (English as a second language). They do not beat themselves up for their mistakes nor consider themselves somehow magically gifted.

OK, enough.

But, the Independent also had an example of excellent English in Julian Baggini's opinion piece about the 'right to die' debate. Forget the hysterical shouting of those such as Polly Toynbee, who just curse anyone who is stupid enough to disagree with their root assumptions. In his piece, Julian Baggini questions the very terms of the debate, particularly common assumptions about 'competing personal liberties'. Before patiently, intelligently and unpolemically offering an alternative 'narrative' against which to see the debate, he makes an appeal:

… if it is simply an issue of competing personal liberties, most, if not all, the arguments against [assisted dying] can be dealt with by the provision of appropriate safeguards. The real problem is that we do not employ a rich enough notion of what personal liberty means to see why assisted dying requires very sensitive handling.

Baggini then addresses the fundamental question of 'the common good' – the social nature of human beings. He observes:

The truth we need to deal with is that the common good is not arrived at simply by adding up individual goods. Rather, the common good is what enables individual lives to be nourished rather than degraded by the society they live in… The argument against assisted suicide on these grounds is not that your doing it directly harms others, but that your having the right to do it requires changing the social ecology in such a way as to diminish the ability of all individuals to thrive in it.

In drawing attention to this Baggini elucidates the fundamentally identical point made by Rowan Williams. He concludes by calling for an intelligent debate that moves away from a shockingly simplistic (and ignorantly lazy) rejection of 'outdated theology' and an equally simplistic deification of 'individual liberty' seen in isolation from the implications of the social nature of human beings.

I was struck by Baggini's article mainly because of the temperate and eirenic use of language to shine a different light into a very contentious debate. Instead of merely accepting the validity of the philosophical or anthropological terms of discussion, he challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying some of the strongly-held views and introduces a vital 'other' element to the discourse.

It is a model of how to argue, respecting the passions of the polemicists, but quietly challenging the terms of the debate. And it is something I am not alone in needing to learn from.

One of the benefits of not living in London is that traveling to London allows time to read. My Inbox is empty, my desk is clear, correspondence is all done and I am ready for Christmas. And now the’s just catch-up to play with the books, papers, articles and briefings that haven’t quite found their way to the top of the pile.
 
So, coming down to London (I’m doing Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show and then meetings tomorrow before getting back to speak at the Bradford City FC Carol Service at Bradford Cathedral in the evening) got me reading a pile of papers. All very important and worthy stuff and I feel better for having read it all. But, I got to my hotel and stuck the telly on… and that’s where the perspective changed.
 
I don’t usually watch awards shows, but this one captured me. I switched straight in to ITV’s A Night of Heroes: The Military Awards 2011 and listened to the story of a reservist paramedic who saved the life of a soldier in Afghanistan who had been shot in the head by a Taleban sniper. This was followed by four seriously injured soldiers who raised funds for charity by walking unaided to the North Pole (with Prince Harry).
 
I have to admit to a deep unease with the way in which the word ‘heroes’ is being used in relation to our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the safety of comfortable England I wouldn’t be so insensitive as to question the language used to draw attention to the people who don’t have the luxury of sitting in an armchair and doing semantic criticism. But, watching this awards ceremony makes it clearer than ever that people are not heroes for simply being in a place of conflict – that’s what they signed up for. Heroism comes in when people, with disregard to their own survival, put their life on the line to save someone else. To do this when people are shooting at you is one thing – you can hear from the stories how the adrenalin cuts in and you do something extraordinary. But, to do it again and again – conscious of the real fear and the potential cost – that is heroism.
 
These stories are astonishing. Seeing the human emotion in relationships forged by shocking violence is powerful.
 
But, the contrasts are also there to be seen on the screen. The audience includes glamorous telly stars and footballers (OK, I spotted Frank Lampard, Jeremy Clarkson and some dancer from Strictly Come Dancing)… but I just wonder how the pay of these extraordinary soldiers and medics compares with the pay of the media stars.
 
I’m not being bitchy. I just wonder what it says about our values and how we reward those who do the ‘harder’ job. Silly question, I know. But, it seems wrong that soldiers who have given life and limb at the command of politicians have to rely on charities to support them when they return to what we loosely call ‘civilisation’.
 
For the first time I feel we are watching real heroes… without having to quibble with the wording. These stories put the trivia of most of our superficial culture into perspective. (And I still hope the Military Wives get the number one spot at Christmas.)

A friend in Scotland (not that that is significant, of course) pointed me to this brilliant history of the English language in ten minutes. It just so happens that I am also currently poking around in David Crystal’s book The Story of English in 100 Words. Just enjoy this sprint through the language.

watch?v=gSYwPTUKvdw

 

On the long and tedious journey back from Dresden to Bradford I got the train to Berlin Hauptbahnhof and then went over the road for the bus to Tegel airport. The buses run every six minutes. Which is useless efficiency if they are all full, you can’t get on and you have a deadline for catching your flight.

I gave up and went back over to the station to get a taxi. A bloke saw me and suggested we share – halve the cost. He turned out to be from Zürich and the conversation during the taxi ride was the best bit of the entire journey.

At one point he asked me where I had learned to speak such excellent German. Flattering? Not really. My German is not great and I know it. Having been relatively fluent donkey’s years ago doesn’t help much when you are rusty and rarely get to speak for any length of time. It was kind of him, but the real issue is this: he was surprised that, as an Englishman, I could speak any German at all. In other words, he had very low expectations and they were exceeded. In fact, I had only chit-chatted a few banal sentences before he made his comment. I hadn’t exactly recited Goethe like a native.

The journey took around fifteen minutes – in which time we covered Russian culture and politics, Swiss beauty spots, weather systems in Moscow (where I have never been) and frustrations with Berlin buses. The taxi driver just moaned about how the city gets bigger and fuller: too many people, too many cars, too many trains… but, obviously not too much custom.

I have no idea of who my co-passenger was, but he obviously wasn’t put off by the purple shirt and clerical collar. He made a long and tiring journey at least interesting. And I am recording it here so that I don’t forget it.

The languages debate continues. Following earlier discussions on this blog – especially in the light of recent press reports on a podcast I’d made – here is a piece commissioned by the Yorkshire Post. I’ll let it speak for itself.

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