Making play of language in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare has the page Moth jibe, “They have been at a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps.” And a diet of leftovers is what children in England will get until the government makes radical changes.
In the Preface to his play Pygmalion (1916) Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (left) severely indicted what he saw as a prevalent and detrimental attitude: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
English apart, there used to be a long tradition of studying other (foreign) languages. In its heyday, taking Classics at British universities covered the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean world. Greek and Latin were its foundation. Mr Chipping in James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) knew both languages. In the book and the film version with Robert Donat (1939), this leads to a memorable classroom play on words: “The Lex Canuleia is not, as Cawley Minor seems to think, a law regulating canals, but a law that permitted Roman patricians to marry plebeians. An easy way to remember it is to imagine a Miss Plebeian wishing to marry a Mr. Patrician, and Mr. Patrician saying he can’t. She could then reply ‘Oh yes, you can, you liar’.”
In the early part of the 20th century, and before comprehensive education was introduced in British school in the 1960s, modern languages were taught to high standards, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. Then, in 2002, modern languages were dropped as a compulsory subject for 14 to 16-year-olds, despite protests from teachers and other organisations interested in promoting languages.
By 2006 language teaching in England and Wales was in crisis. That year a letter signed by 50 professors and heads of language departments from dozens of top universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, was sent to The Observer calling on the government to reverse a controversial policy introduced in 2004 allowing pupils to drop languages at 14. It was a move rooted in the notion that “languages do not matter, that English is enough”, they said.
The question of teaching languages in schools cannot be separated from the notoriety surrounding academic selection, largely abolished in England in the 1960s and 70s in favour of all-ability comprehensive schools. In a wide-ranging lecture delivered in May 2011 – the first of a series marking the 400th anniversary of the public school Charterhouse – its headmaster commented on what he described as the “tragedy of comprehensive education”:
“The practical, skills-based vocational training that good well-funded secondary moderns could and should have provided has often been absent, and so too has the academically rigorous teaching for clever children that the grammar schools once provided. Social mobility has gone as well.”
Skills-based vocational training in today’s world must include modern languages. One hundred years after Shaw’s diatribe, on the eve of the Conservative Party conference (1 October 2011), UK Education Secretary Michael Gove stressed the need to revive foreign language teaching in primary schools and in the country. He said:
“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children… Understanding a modern foreign language helps you understand English better. The process of becoming fluent in a foreign language reinforces your fluency and understanding of grammar, syntax, sentence structure, verbal precision. There is no one who is fluent in a foreign language who isn’t a masterful user of their own language.”
In the light of the recent furore over social inclusion or exclusion, cultural integration or alienation, the British government would do well to wise up and put its money where its mouth is. Otherwise, we shall be like the lady at the court of Versailles who, according to Voltaire, said: “C’est bien dommage que l’aventure de la tour de Babel ait produit la confusion des langues; sans cela tout le monde aurait toujours parlé français.”