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.
- 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.