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.

Excellent news, if it is true. Apparently, Education Minister, Michael Gove, thinks that every child over the age of five should learn a foreign language in school.

Now we need to wait and learn more about:

  • how it is to be costed
  • which languages will be prioritised
  • whether or not a language will later be made compulsory at GCSE level
  • and if the teaching of languages might be changed in order that children can actually learn not just how to repeat things, but to initiate independent thought and speech.

In the course of this we might also urge him to consider whether French is still the most appropriate ‘first’ foreign language to teach in the UK. Boys in particular find it hard to get their mouth around French pronunciation and clearly don’t like the ‘acting’ that is required to do it. Spanish is easier, German harder to learn but easier for Brits to pronounce. German is spoken by over 100 million people in Europe (more than any other language) and Spanish is useful in various parts of the globe. And French? Er…

The real problem in the future, however, is where the competent language teachers are going to come from when the numbers of those already learning a language has plummeted in the last ten years. The consequences of previous policies will be felt for a generation or more.

Which is why I get worked up about it.

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.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Bradford

One of the reasons time has been too short for decent blogging (or, for that matter, indecent blogging) is my having taken on too many speaking engagements which required proper preparation. One of them was a contribution to a multidisciplinary conference on The Rhetorics of Moderation at the University of Huddersfield last night. I had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the final conference of a three-year project initiated by the Universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh and Huddersfield.

The draft text (not quite as delivered) is available on the Bradford diocesan website. But I will try to sum up the key bits here and see what sort (if any) of response it gets.

When I (finally) agreed to do this gig I wasn’t sure what the title of the series really meant: ‘The Rhetorics of Moderation’. I initially wondered if it might be an academic conference on how to talk about exam invigilation – clearly misunderstanding both ‘rhetoric’ and ‘moderation’. But, I eventually offered the title The Moderation of Rhetoric, so I could bang on about ‘language’ again. As a non-academic it is always a little intimidating going into such a context, but everyone was kind and the conversation was, I thought, quite stimulating.

My basic point – developing Helmut Schmidt’s argument (in Außer Dienst) that in order to understand your own culture you have to look at it through the lens of a different culture… and you can only do that if you understand something of the other language – was simple: language shapes both thought and behaviour. Therefore, language (or rhetoric) is not neutral. As  put it in my introduction:

So, my simple contention here is that language matters – that before reflecting on the ‘rhetorics of moderation’, we need to pay attention to the moderation of rhetoric and the ways in which we use language in our common human discourses in a complicated globalised world.

It is essential for good public discourse that interlocutors learn the language of ‘the other’ in order (a) to understand, (b) to know how to respond, (c) to see how this response will be heard and understood by ‘the other’, and (d) to keep the conversation going. This point is helpfully addressed by Rowan Williams in his brilliant book on Dostoyevsky where he writes about the corruption of language. Here are a couple of quotes from the Introduction to the book:

The novels [of Dostoyevsky] ask us, in effect, whether we can imagine a human community of language and feeling in which, even if we were incapable of fully realizing it, we knew what was due to each other; whether we could imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate.

[Dostoyevsky as narrator] sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover that we can always say more… When we have nothing with which to engage, we stop speaking and stop developing.

Williams goes on to tie language and freedom to a responsive experience of ‘otherness’ and he challenges the Hegelian ‘freedom of the void’ – that is, as Williams puts it:

…the dream of a liberty completely without constraint from any other, human, subhuman or divine; because it has no “other”, it can also have no content. But this means that the hunger for such freedom can only manifest itself in destruction, flinging itself against existing limits… …the Dostoevskian novel is… an exercise in resisting the demonic and rescuing language.

So, Williams takes from Dostoyevsky the notion that language is not neutral, that human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, that language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and that when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence. (Perhaps this also explains his approach to those contentious issues in the Anglican Communion where people want to close down conversation and force a conclusion that saves them from the pain of engaging with ‘the other’.)

I took from this that “we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.”

I went on to illustrate (from personal experience of media, social media and interfaith dialogue) the importance of getting the language right. It won’t come as any surprise to readers of this blog that my unease with some of our media language got a run-around again. Not only do I think a strong democracy demands a strong, informed, intelligent and independent press, but I also think that those who hold the rest of us to account should themselves be held to account for the professionalism (or lack of it) with which they operate.

Finding people who have learned how to think about how to think – or how we know that we know what we know (epistemology, if you want the posh word) – is clearly becoming more rare. It is trivial engagement in creating conflict that drives the media agenda. Of course there are exceptions to this, but it is hard to pretend that democracy is served by what we are currently served up. The point is, however, that those who use language to persuade, influence and inform also need to be held to account for how they manipulate the powerful tool at their disposal.

My fear here is that the crass diminution of encouragement of and support for arts, humanities and social sciences in both school and university means that not only are we creating a culture that values mechanics, but doesn’t do ‘deep’ thinking. Not only are we in danger of depriving the current generation, but we are cutting off the expertise and enthusiasms we need for a future generation of teachers. We can lose in one generation what will take several generations (at least) to recover. To see the arts and humanities as ‘unproductive’ in terms of balance sheet bottom lines is more than myopic; it is dangerously and narrowly stupid.

My conclusion was not very startling:

If we take social cohesion seriously, we must pay attention to the language we use. Our rhetoric needs to be moderated, challenged, thought through. This is not pedantry or a form of distraction therapy; language shapes behaviour and shapes the lens through which different people see differently the different worlds within which we live. The diminution of attention to language – now seen in the paucity of language teaching and learning, the demotion of arts and humanities, does not augur well for having good public moderators of rhetoric in the decades to come. But the task will not go away.

It is worth considering that I delivered this address (and discussed questions arising from it in a stimulating Q & A session afterwards) immediately after visiting a Church of England primary school. The school serves one of the most challenging and deprived communities in Bradford and is outstanding in all respects. Contrary to the sloppy reporting in the media about ‘faith schools’ – either ignorant of or deliberately disregarding of the distinction between ‘faith schools’ and ‘church schools’ – this school works wonders for families, local communities and commands the determined loyalty of staff and governors. The headteacher told me she didn’t want moderately interested or interesting teachers or visitors to the school; she wants people who are passionate about what they do, how they think and what they believe. This school would be an inconvenient embarrassement to those who wish to pretend that church schools are divisive, privileged, sectarian or damaging.

Here again, the language is crucial.

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