Many courses at Loughborough University offer the option of taking an external, ten credit language module, no matter what your degree. Whilst this may seem culturally open minded, for many of us, it seems the gateway to fluency closed many years ago.
I wasn’t very good at French. In years seven, eight and nine I was reasonable at languages, but afterwards I gave up on them – despite taking French as a GCSE. I stopped enjoying it, stopped seeing the point in it, and soon, just stopped doing it. I’m sure there are those of you out there that felt the same way, as well as those of you out there who loved languages, and enjoyed carrying them on to a higher level (and why not, with interpreters having one of the highest job satisfaction ratings in the UK at the moment). But languages, it seems, are top of the government’s agenda once more.
The Tories’ views on education within this government have been controversial – Gove seems unable to understand what his own ideas are and what’s already being taught –but now the British Council has issued a report about the teaching of languages within schools. In essence, it rates Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic as more important to learn than French or German; or, more specifically, that not enough people are learning these three key languages to fluency. In response, the Department of Education has stated that it’s reforms – making languages compulsory from the age of seven (about year three), and making it a compulsory subject for an English Baccalaureate – ‘will ensure hundreds and thousands more young people will study languages each year.’
Comparatively, England is weak when it comes to languages; a fact most of us notice on holiday, where most locals can have a conversation in English while we can’t do anything without a translation book. But if other cultures have all learned our language, what’s the point in learning theirs? This sounds, when said out loud, quite selfish. If they’ve put in the effort to learn our language, surely we should reciprocate – especially when most of us get a little thrill out of being able to say ‘L’addition, s’il vous plaît’ at the end of a meal? At the same time, though, don’t most futures in popular media show us adopting a planet-wide language? And if everyone is so intent on learning English, why not just use it, and forget the other languages?
That’s a different debate, however. What is interesting is the refocusing from the traditional French and German to Mandarin and Arabic. Mandarin is easily understandable. China has the world’s biggest population, and is becoming a major international power. Arabic is a little harder to understand (not all the countries in the Middle East speak the same language, and the Arab states, while oil rich, are not particularly populated), and I reckon Hindi or Gujurati are possibly more important considering India’s recent technological advances, but I can still understand the reasoning.
Once again, Gove attempts to claim an old idea as his own: languages have been compulsory for seven -year olds for nearly a decade now, longer than the Tories have been in power, with some schools even running classes and clubs for those below that age. But the real problem lies in trying to add more to an already bulging curriculum –one the Government has been insisting needs to be focused on the core subjects. French is easier to learn because parents, who have also learnt French, can help their children. If the government wants to add a more complicated language to the curriculum, they need to decide whether there is anything they can afford to lose; right now, I don’t believe there is. I understand their idea, and I agree with it. But whether they can actually do it now is another thing altogether.