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.

 

Oh no! The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his inhibitions, thrown caution to the wind, and – in a massive scoop for the media – has slagged off the government in a book to come out after he has left office in 2013. It must be his considered revenge, mustn’t it?

Even the BBC website has him “dismiss[ing] David Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative as ‘aspirational waffle'”.

The story broke with the Observer claiming to “have obtained” the book. Just how clever is that?

Has it occurred to any of these guys that the book is a collection of speeches and writings already given over the last few years? In other words, the scripts are all public anyway and have been for some time. The headline story about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was, I think, delivered before the last election.

So, why is this now puffed up into a sensation story? Why is it presented as if it was anything new? Why did any editor think this could possibly be a ‘story’ unless it was misleadingly represented as ‘new’?

Or, just like (a) when the riots hit England last year and we were constantly asked why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, and (b) when St Paul’s Cathedral steps were Occupied and we were constantly aksed why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, why did no journalist go back to their previous ‘scandal’ story and recall that the Archbishop of Canterbury had actually spoken very loudly about all these matters in articles and speeches – not least the New Statesman editorial that politicians and journalists castigated him for?

Is such amnesia deliberate? Or is there some other explanation?

[Note on 25 June: I notice that John Bingham got the story right in the Telegraph.]