Future of Languages

I am supporting the Speak to the future campaign. In my previous post I mentioned the attitudes I have had to my Chinese learning, which is surprisingly very different from attitudes to Latin and Greek learning, and which I think is symptomatic of attitude to languages in general in this country. Actually when I was learning Latin and Greek at school in the 1960s and 70s there were always kids who asked why, but nowadays there is something of a revival of the classics. And so there should but that’s a blog for another day. When I go to Spain I am told that the Spanish are eager to learn English because it enhances their job prospects, will get them a better job, promotion, etc. I think this is where we are going wrong. I am very against making languages compulsory in schools, and any one who has had to do battle with a class of teenagers who do not want to be in their class will know where I am coming from. How many times have I heard the complaints: “why do I have to learn French? I am never going to live in France. Why can’t we learn Japanese instead? ….. Later they get a job and find that a little knowledge of Spanish, German, Japanese etc. would be immensely helpful. This is the point. We shouldn’t make languages compulsory we should make them desirable. We should be hearing “I need German to get into university”, “I need a language to get into the VI form”, ” I need a modern language to get a good job”. We could incorporate language skills into VI form courses e.g. German for scientists. This would get away from the “tourist” type learning and focus on business and technical language.

What we need is a top-down approach. Languages should be valued. Jobs that require languages should make a language part of the selection criteria. Of course it will take years for the mis-match to iron itself out and the danger would be that British school leavers would lose out to their European counterparts who have the language skills. Employers could offer the opportunity to learn the requisite language. For the rest of the world the choice of which language to learn is easy – English, but for English speakers it is not so straightforward. It should not matter which language we learn as learning any language should help us to learn another, especially in the same language family. Here is one very good reason for making the teaching of Latin more widespread. So employers could request a language, but expect to train their staff in the language that was most appropriate to their needs.

Money is another matter. If languages are to be valued then they should attract higher wages. I was lucky, in my previous job we were paid allowances for each language skill. We had to pass an examination of course. There are too many language jobs that want 3 languages, perfect English, a degree in a specialist subject and experience in a particular field and then pay a wage ludicrously low wage.


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