Sunday, 15 February 2009

Don't know the lingo? No problemo

‘The English are no good at foreign languages’. That isn’t the kind of news likely to shock anyone. In fact, it isn’t news at all. But when the BBC told us this week that fewer and fewer school students are choosing to study languages, with the result that standards are in rapid decline, that came as more of a revelation. Given how low the starting point is, the idea of decline is pretty extraordinary.

It’s rather like announcing worrying news that bankers may no longer be able to hit the standards of generosity and social conscience we’ve come to expect of them in recent years. It may not always be possible to take the good faith of lawyers on trust. Or the England football team may not be able to maintain the high level of performance it has been achieving over the last three or four decades.

What intrigued me was learning that the drift away from modern languages in schools may have been an unintended consequence of a deliberate government policy. Estelle Morris, who was Education Secretary at the time, told the BBC that they had decided to make languages optional as a measure against truancy. She felt that modern language classes were causing some students to skip school, and also making it more difficult to bring them back in again later, after they’d got too far behind their class mates.

It hasn’t worked, of course. Truancy is as high as ever. But the measure was never going to give the results Morris hoped. Obviously, German irregular verbs or the French imperfect subjunctive are enough to drive most kids out of school. But just think how much is still left on the curriculum that would be at least as deadly. You get rid of languages, but you leave fractions? You do nothing about all those boring dates in history? What about geography, the subject that according to teachers tells us so much about real life? A few years ago I stumbled across – or more precisely into – an ox bow lake. I took pictures of it, I got my family to come and look at it, I’ve talked about it endlessly. Why? Because I learned about those lakes in Geography when I was twelve but never actually saw one for the next forty years. And they call that preparation for the real world?

I can’t actually remember when I last had to solve any simultaneous equations, draw a lopsided picture of a vase of flowers or remember the atomic weight of Beryllium. There are so many things that could be dropped from the curriculum to make school less repellent. And imagine replacing them with sessions on a Wii or even Nintendo: kids would be positively queuing up to go to school. OK, they might not come out being able to talk Dickens or recite pi, but they’d be off the streets.

Meanwhile, the English are becoming even less competent in foreign languages than before. What’s more, the BBC pointed out that a class divide is emerging. In the nice schools, private schools or grammar schools, they’re still learning languages; it’s in the ordinary state schools that language studies are doing their vanishing act.

Now that really is an interesting piece of information. What we’re saying is that in places where they retain the grammar school system – nice counties like Buckinghamshire where people like to sip their white wine in the refined company of their friends – it’s still regarded as adding a bit of cachet to be able to place the odd French bon mot here and there.

In the rest of the country, we’ve realised that thanks to enlightened American foreign policy, all we have to do when abroad is speak a little more slowly or raise our voices a bit for the natives to understand. It may be in their interests to get a pretty good grasp of English sharpish, specially since the Rumsfeld/Cheney school took the education of the world in hand.

In any case, the word for ‘beer’ is sufficiently similar to its German equivalent to be understood in Germany. Even the French word isn’t that different. So all we really need is to be able to say ‘Oona serbesa’ in Spain, and we’ve got the main bases covered.

As it happens, Spanish barmen are pretty smart. Faced with an Englishman rambling incomprehensibly, I suspect they would just automatically put a beer in front of him. They must know that in four cases out of five, they won’t be far wrong. Besides, if the Englishman did actually speak Spanish, he would probably find himself involved in a conversation. And that would almost certainly lead to the revelation that Spain had just humiliated England in some sporting encounter. How would that enhance the quality of his life?

So let’s just leave our Englishman, with the sun at his back and a beer in his hands, blissful in his monolingual ignorance. Let the BBC worry about language teaching. To the rest of us, just how much does it matter?


Awoogamuffin said...

Yeah well, I thought all the equations I'd learned at school were useless until I got into programming.

Just writing a relatively pointless procedural paint splatter required dredging up half-remembered rules of trigonometry.

Also, Liverpool thrashed Madrid twice. So you're just wrong, ok?

David Beeson said...

Didn't Fernando Torres play a significant role in those victories?