‘To speak another language isn’t just cultured, it’s a blow against stupidity’
Michael Hofmann, a leading translator, has spoken out against the English approach to learning – critically, the absence of teaching – modern foreign languages.
In 2004, the Labour government removed foreign languages from the national curriculum. This means that students are not required to study a foreign language past age 14. At 60% of state schools, 75% of 14-year-olds are not taking a modern language.
The intention is that primary schools should introduce languages instead, however that is problematic given that the subject is so easily disposed of in later years. British language teachers will become a rare breed given that they will come from a small pool of students.
Michael likens this approach to a ‘road sign with the big black arrow pointing one way and the skinny little red arrow going the other…a feeble sign of wouldn’t-it-be-nice idealism-on-the-cheap.’
Similarly, companies requiring employees with language skills continue to look outside of the UK. EU jobs earmarked for Britons are left unfilled because the entrance exams are supposed to be taken in a second language.
The fundamental issue is that if education seeks to provide each student with a solid foundation upon which to develop their understanding of self and the world around them, then a foundation without languages looks very unstable. Michael questions, ‘how can you hope to understand others while requiring them to speak to you in their English?’
For the last 6 years, students have been sitting their GCSE’s, and subsequently mapping their futures, without a solid grounding of a foreign language under their belt. Considering the above statistics, their map will certainly not be an atlas.
Michael argues that English will become ‘deformed and opaque if those using it haven’t studied other languages. Already Browne, Milton, Gibbon, Ruskin, perhaps soon the much-invoked Orwell, are unreachably foreign. It’s only the study of other languages that brought them within reach.’
Michael cites the human disregard for that which is challenging as a cause of students’ disinterest in languages: ‘Grammar? Pronunciation? Different alphabet? Spelling? Accents? Umlauts? “Ooh, no thanks – don’t fancy that”’ are hindering the way that we approach learning languages.
He goes on to argue that the social ideals of ‘respect, articulateness and awareness of others are all related. What greater disrespect can there be than not speaking to others in their languages? Not even thinking of it? Not even being embarrassed about not thinking it?…surely, apart from anything else, with more language-learning, there would have been fewer wars over the past decades?’