Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Does learning a foreign language matter?

In the olden days when I first went to university, I had to have an 'O'-level pass in Latin in order to be admitted. At the time, I don't recall thinking how unfair that was, or how onerous, for it was just a fact of life. So anyone wanting to go to Cambridge just got on and did it, without making a big deal of it. Nowadays, of course, not only is Latin no longer a requirement, nor is any foreign language qualification at all. Aside from language courses themselves, my understanding is that knowledge of and qualifications in a foreign language are no longer a requirement for entry to any UK university. This reflects the general view in the UK that learning languages is not, or is no longer, considered to be all that important, and decisions by education ministers a few years ago to make language learning no longer compulsory up to age 16 (GCSE stage).

But as lots of recent press correspondence indicates, many people do still think that language learning is important for young people in the UK, and I suspect that lots of them would like to see a foreign language becoming a compulsory part of the national curriculum once more. Indeed some have even proposed making a foreign language qualification a requirement for university entry. While I wouldn't necessarily go that far, there are some important issues here that need wider discussion and debate.

For a start, the attitude that 'languages don't matter' is surely bad for the UK's standing in the world and, more practically, its ability to do business effectively. Sure, we can always import people with language skills when we need them, and we already do so on a large scale. But what impression does it make on a German firm, say, if the people they meet when doing business with a UK firm are actually German nationals (with good English, naturally) hired by that firm; or even worse, if the people they meet just assume that 'everyone speaks English'? It's true that English has become a sort of lingua franca for doing business anywhere in the world, but even so it does seem rather arrogant to take that for granted and not bother learning the language of one's trading partners. In contrast, wherever I go in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, most reasonably well educated people regard learning two or three languages as the norm - language learning starts early, is frequently supplemented by private tuition, and standards are high.

Second, there are strong cultural arguments for learning a foreign language. Education is not just about picking up skills and knowledge that will be useful in the job market, though all too often it is presented that way nowadays. For in addition to such immediately practical matters, it is surely also about understanding our place in the world - geographically, historically, politically, culturally and so on; and about understanding how our world works - hence science, engineering, etc. Foreign languages fit into this broader picture of education because they provide access to the culture and history of other countries, through learning to read their literature, their newspapers, or whatever.

Not only that, but even a very modest knowledge of a foreign language enables one to function practically when visiting the country, and in many countries people are delighted when visitors take the trouble to use the local language - it helps to break down barriers, and to make new friends.

Third, I think there are also huge intellectual arguments for learning foreign languages, which I would sum up briefly as follows: (a) it's hard to get far with a foreign language without learning a good deal of grammar, and that can have enormously beneficial effects on the learner's ability to think and write in English; (b) a little like mathematics, foreign language learning necessarily involves discipline, logic and accuracy - you have to get things right, and can't get away with waffle and general chat as is apparently possible in some other subjects. So as mental training, learning a foreign language is an excellent vehicle. And (c) because learning a foreign language is perceived in the UK to be 'difficult', successfully doing so and achieving a good level has to have beneficial effects on the learner's self confidence, something that is invaluable when doing almost anything else in life that is difficult and demanding.

Overall, then, we are surely immensely foolish as a nation to have allowed foreign language learning to decline as badly as it has in recent years, and to have allowed the standard of what we do teach also to decline quite markedly. It's time we started reviving the teaching of modern languages, and the sooner the better.

As for me, although I did Latin at school (as well as French and German) and was quite good at it, I don't remember liking it very much at the time. However, there's no particular reason to think that school syllabuses should be designed to ensure that we should like everything we do, that's just silly, a bit naive - the 'fun' theory of education. But nowadays, when I visit Roman monuments and see old inscriptions, it's quite spine tingling to be able to have a bash at reading them - usually I can figure out about half of any given inscription, enough to get the gist; I can't remember enough Latin to manage better than that. But even to experience such a tenuous connection with our ancient civilization is pretty amazing, making all the drudgery of learning Latin in the first place more than worthwhile. So let's bring back Latin!

1 comment:

  1. Learning foreign languages should really be prioritized.

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