In neighbouring European countries (I write from the University of Perpignan in France), where two languages are often compulsory at school and university, Simon Jenkins’ piece will no doubt provoke a few smiles (or groans … or both): it’s sooooo British! But why should things be different for pupils and students in the UK? Because they are (mainly) native English speakers, is it acceptable to consider that language learning is not for them? Jenkins’ piece certainly comes at a bad time as Modern Languages are increasingly under threat in the UK despite certain well-known advantages of language learning and mastery (try a quick Internet search for titles such as the following: “how much is a foreign language worth?”, “learning a language is the ultimate career development hack”, “superior social skills of bilinguals”, “learning languages boosts your brain power”, “language learning to prevent dementia”, etc.) So why deny UK students the benefits? One could claim, as does Simon Jenkins, that there is no instrumental motivation for language learning in the UK, in conjunction with the world status of English. This is not helped by a general lack of faith in the ability of teachers together with certain pervading folk-beliefs such as the well-known English-is-best-for-doing-business (see Emmanuelle Labeau’s response to Jeremy Paxman’s stance on English in The Conversation, 18.04.16).
But there is a more profound issue at stake here. As Professor R. A. Lodge, a former AFLS President, pointed out in a letter to the Observer several years ago (13.02.11), “while our European neighbours are led to broaden their world views through learning English, we choose to narrow our horizons, in the belief that sourcing all our ideas in a single place will lead to intellectual creativity, economic regeneration and cultural autonomy.” One could argue that this is mere rhetoric offered by those who are most affected by cuts and in danger of losing their jobs. One could go even further, likening the extinction of Modern Languages to the phasing out of handwriting in favour of typing (e.g. in Finland), or the culling of Morse and semaphore by the armed forces in favour of electronic means of communication – it’s a case of keeping up with the times. However, it’s not as easy as that. And as far as languages are concerned, ignorance is far more wide-reaching than simple linguistic ineptitude. It has been claimed that language learning can change people, as they are exposed not only to otherness, but also as they come to grapple with conveying self through a new medium: language learning as part of an identity-forming process. A challenge if ever there was one to a system in which languages tend to be viewed as mere subjects rather than invaluable life-skills a country cannot afford to neglect.
Just as the wizarding world has Muggle Studies, so the Muggle world needs Wizard Studies. Some people may choose to disagree (just as some wizards are opposed to Muggle Studies, believing in their own supremacy), and some may take issue with the seemingly out-dated understanding that Modern Languages are necessarily European languages (the UK is indeed home to many languages, many cultures). However, let’s not forget that English, too, is a European language. As Lodge puts it, “opting out of European languages implies that, as a group, we do not wish to relate meaningfully to the speakers of these languages and that we do not believe that they have anything to teach us”. Meanwhile, the impact of English as a lingua franca is being assessed, along with issues such as domain loss in local vernaculars (as certain functions are picked up by English) and other linguistic and cultural side-effects. And as Spencer Hazel claims in an article in The Conversation (10.02.16), for monoglot English speakers there is the added difficulty of communicating with a large and growing number of non-native or new speakers of English. One might argue, then, that there is a clear case to be made for safeguarding language learning on ecological grounds. At an economic level, highly proficient non-native speakers of English may have the edge over monoglots.
We ditch language learning at our own peril: there is too much to lose and so much left to gain. AFLS encourages the study of French at all levels and in all contexts. And if you believe Kathy Stein-Smith, writing in Language Magazine (07.08.17), there may even be a promising future for the French language in Europe and beyond…
Bonne rentrée à tous !