Category Archives: Language

Mind the language gap…

file5981249389157Latest blog from Shaun.

News that many universities are giving up teaching foreign languages is shocking to me. I think a strong modern languages education sector is vital not only for the skills and knowledge it provides, but for helping to create a more positive attitude towards other countries and immigration.

The value of speaking a foreign language cannot be under-estimated, in my opinion. As well as giving people an ability which can prove useful on holiday or in business, as the world gets ever smaller, learning a language and gaining a qualification in it demonstrates a good deal of hard work and dedication that can be put to use in many other areas of life, from getting a job to moving abroad.

Apparently modern language students are being put off at both GCSE and A Level because the grades they get aren’t as high as they would be in other subjects. This raises two questions – surely all subjects should be marked and graded on a level playing field, or are other subjects marked more leniently? If so, that seems unacceptable. On the other hand, if modern languages exams are more difficult and a qualification harder to come by, surely universities should recognise that in the grades they ask for?

It seems to me that, as with many science subjects that are no longer taught at universities, there is a drift towards offering ‘easier’ courses so more students get top grades, regardless of how valid the qualification is in the wider world.

As a French and Economics graduate myself, I think a degree in modern languages is far more worthwhile in life and for a career than some of the more ‘unusual’ degree courses now available. So, rather than cutting modern language degrees, much more should be done by the education establishment and the Government to give these courses the support they deserve. This might help to provide more young people with the skills and qualifications they really need for getting a job in today’s global economy.

Of course, we are forever reading about the number of European immigrants coming to the UK, most of whom are able, let’s face it, to speak a certain amount of English. If more British people spoke a foreign language, perhaps they would be tempted to try emigrating to other parts of Europe themselves, so the flow of traffic wouldn’t be so one-way. We might learn more about our European neighbours, respect them more and appreciate the barriers that immigrants to Britain have had to overcome in order to offer their skills and improve their lot in this country.

Time to change the way we teach foreign languages

I might be something of a communications geek, but I adore the challenges and excitement of communication. Humankind is, as far as we know, the species with the most highly developed sense of communication and language and so, to me, communication is part of the very essence of being human.

I am interested in the whole range of communications from technological developments such as blogs and Twitter, to corporate communications and foreign languages.

Learning a foreign language enables us to communicate with fellow human beings in other countries and from other backgrounds and cultures. The teaching of foreign languages has always interested me, though not being a teacher, I can only speak from the perspective of a learner.

The world has changed a great deal since I studied German. Back then it was not uncommon to pick up scientific journals – I also studied chemistry – in which research papers were published in German, French or Russian, with only a brief English abstract, if you were lucky. I remember once ‘deciphering’ a pharmaceutical paper that was published in Danish. Today, almost all such papers would be published in English.

Although, I no longer use my German in the working environment, I still value its use when I visit Germany as I gain so much more, I believe, than if I relied on the English spoken by the locals. And as I socialise with a number of Germans, it is so useful to be able to speak German. We often have great debates about the finer nuances between the two languages. I remember a recent discussion in German about the difference between ‘naughty’ and ‘nasty’ in English. My German friend was intrigued by the difference between ‘You naughty girl’ said to someone of six years of age and someone of 42!
Foreign language teaching
What has always concerned me about foreign language teaching in the UK is the way it has typically focused on one or two languages. In countries which do not have English as a mother tongue, it goes without saying that the first foreign language you teach should be English, as the lingua franca for most of the world’s business community.

For the UK, however, the decision is much more difficult. For historical, cultural and geographical reasons, the first choice of foreign language here has been French, German or Spanish, with Russian and Mandarin coming in a distant second place.

But in reality the needs of our population is not to learn a language in great detail. I know plenty about the use of the extended attribute in scientific German. What I believe would be better for students is to learn half a dozen languages more superficially.

Not only will this increase the chance that, when visiting a foreign country, you have some basic grasp of the local language but, from a commercial point of view, future business people will be able to at least understand some of the deliberations taking place around them.

I am convinced that the general reliance on English has not stood the UK economy in good stead when it comes to exporting to overseas markets.

Obviously, there will always be a need for some students to study one or two languages in depth, in order that they can become translators or journalist or whatever, but what I’d like to see is that the first two years of language teaching, as a minimum, focuses on basic salutations in languages including Welsh, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter which languages they are, the key is that we empower people to have a better understanding of their fellow human beings, wherever on the globe they are.