Native Tongue-tied

Learning a foreign tongue opens up an entirely new spectrum of cultural rewards, yet state schools are failing to emphasise their importance

Culture & Anarchy Education Language
Mange tout, Rodney, mange tout: The British ineptitude with foreign languages is comically portrayed by David Jason's Del Boy

It is one of the paradoxes of our times that the more we are exhorted to be outward-looking, the less we equip our people to be so. We are told not to be Little Englanders, to embrace the rest of the world, their cultures and their customs, with fervour, and, in particular, to assume a European identity above a national one. Why, then, have we chosen this time to make the teaching of foreign languages in our schools an increasingly rare practice, clearing them out of the syllabus to make room for such soul-enhancing subjects as media studies?

One reason, of course, is that a foreign language is not vocational. Unless one intends to become a teacher of the language — and there is shrinking demand for them — or to go to work in a non-Anglophone country, then such study is deemed pointless. Another reason is that it does require a certain mental discipline to learn a new language. Even if one regards grammar as largely dispensable — which has long been the case, it seems, in the teaching of English itself — the student must still grasp some vocabulary, and a rough idea of what order the words go in to be comprehensible. In the non-challenging world of the GCSE, where derisorily low percentages are required to secure a pass, a qualification in the subject would not remotely lead to being able to speak it.

The A-level course is even less demanding, and with depressing consequences for the student. One can pass, at the highest grade, an A-level in a European modern language without reading a word of the literature in that language, or embracing any other part of the related culture. A couple of years ago a sweet girl from a redbrick university came to do work experience for me. She was reading modern languages, and told me she was at the redbrick because she had failed to get into Oxford. I feared another story of rampant anti-state school bigotry by some stuffy Oxbridge don, but I was wrong. The girl had been sent, fully prepared as she thought, from her Midlands comprehensive to her interviews. The first interview was about her second foreign language, German, but was conducted in English. She was asked, early on, what her favourite German literature was. She replied that she hadn’t read any. It was not part of the A-level syllabus and her gormless teachers had not thought to tell her she might like to study some in her spare time, just to be able to make some conversation about it. Leaving that interview in a state of abysmal morale, she went to her French interview, which was conducted in French. She had not been told to expect this, and the 30 minutes a month of oral practice her school provided her with was unequal to the task. It became even more so when her interviewer asked her, in French, what her favourite works of French literature were: she hadn’t been advised to read any of those either.

This is why some leading public schools no longer offer A-level modern languages, but the Pre-U exam instead, because it includes the study of literature, film, drama and other aspects of the related culture. The teaching — or lack of it — of modern languages (never mind Latin and Greek, which are now regarded more or less as manifestations of eccentricity) is now so poor that some public examinations are being tailored to try to achieve the goal of getting some students to pass an exam at any cost.

We are several light years away from an understanding, as far as state schools are concerned, that learning a foreign language or two can bring with it immense intellectual rewards: no doubt because the state education system, despite Michael Gove’s best efforts, shuns intellectualism as the province of a despised “elite”. There is no concerted attempt to explain to young people the psychological rewards of being able to master a new language; or of the joy of being able to explore that language’s literature, or its films without subtitles, or of being able to pick up wider references to that culture from general reading and conversation. Nor do we begin to make it clear to young people the joys of travel that exist outside the mindless Ecstasy-fuelled shagfests of Ibiza, Magaluf and other foreign parts where English becomes, perforce, the lingua franca; or even how wonderful it is to go into a café in a provincial town and not have to beg the waiter to try to translate the menu for you.

I fear we are perilously close to the position that, paradoxically, so many of our ultra-refined French neighbours adopt with such pride, which is of most of our people being unable and unwilling to speak a word of a foreign language and completely unconcerned about it. We might even claim to have less need than the French to feel bad about this: their language is, after all, contracting, while ours is the universal tongue. Indeed, I read an article in Le Figaro recently that, as well as tossing into a piece of French prose well-tried anglicisms such as “le weekend” and “le shopping“, also rolled out, with I sensed the full expectation of its Francophone readership knowing what it meant, “le self-made man“.

Yet even if every French man and woman could, and did, speak English, and even if our vocabulary slowly overran theirs, and even if the same happened in Spain and Italy and Germany — and it won’t — it would still be of the highest importance for people in England to understand these foreign languages, because of everything that becomes available to them once they do. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the classics knows what joys await the man or woman who can grasp some Latin or Greek. A living language is even more rewarding. 

But even in “good” schools the emphasis now is on maths, and sciences, and how computers work, because these are seen as somehow especially relevant to the world in which we must all survive. If the GCSE demanded a high standard in any of them, I might concede the point, because it would mean those studying them were being rigorously educated. But they don’t, and they aren’t. I think Mr Gove understands what it means to be educated, and that non-vocational education is every bit as valuable as the alternative. Pushing the teaching of languages would be the perfect means to prove the point.