Mind Your Language

There has been an interesting debate running through the summer regarding the notoriety attached to groups of Brits marauding around European cities on day sessions, often with inflatable genitals attached to their heads.

Those reading the Sunday Times on their laptops back home are outraged and bemoan a culture which has allowed this to happen – the victory of moral relativity perhaps. Of course, it is easy to blame the intrepid British tourist, attracted by the promise of sunshine, cheap beer and a bit of freedom. Or the unscrupulous continentals who, with their ‘happy hours’ and ‘all-inclusive’ offers positively encourage such bawdy behaviour. However, I’d prefer to focus on the learning of languages which is, I think, related to this whole ‘responsible tourism’ debate.

Lucky enough to marry into a Spanish family, I’ve been in Spain for the past twenty summers or so and what has struck me has been the pitiful amount of British holidaymakers who are able to speak even the most rudimentary Spanish. I think I’ve met one person in twenty years. All the rest point, gesticulate or bellow in a sort of simplified version of their own language. Now before I get accused of intellectual snobbery here, I am not making a value judgement on my fellow Brits. Many of these same people say to me, ‘I wish I could learn Spanish’, or ‘I wish we had done it at school.’ They really want to learn. I find that British holidaymakers are generally keen to learn about their place of rest, and are sociable beings. They want nothing more than to chat away to their hosts. But I truly believe they have been failed by the state education system (private schools tend to value language and culture for historical reasons; let’s face it, many of their past pupils were educated to rule over foreign lands). For years,  the state system has devalued languages and been complicit with the ‘well, everyone speaks English now anyway’ national shrug.

It is now even worse. Many secondary schools are unable to teach modern foreign languages either though budgetary squeezes, a lack of qualified staff or an overwhelming focus on more ‘economically productive’ subjects such as maths and the sciences (though ironically there are even bigger teacher shortages there).

It’s a developing tragedy. Learning a language opens doors and gives the human being a variety of different windows to look out into the world. It benefits an understanding of our own language because it extends vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. It is fun, creative and crosses boundaries with other subjects. Only yesterday, I discovered that the Spanish word ‘ensayo’, which I know as meaning ‘rehearsal’, also means ‘essay’. This led on to linking it to the French influence on our own language after the Norman Conquest. Imagine this being discussed in a lesson; children being able to nimbly link language to culture and history – not simply learning vocabulary in order to ‘pass the test’.

Admittedly, I’m making an altruistic case for language learning, but this is not all. The ultimate irony is that the learning of languages is what the education system surely needs now in order to assist British business as it moves towards much-vaunted new trade deals across the globe. A 2016 report released by the British Council and the Education Development Trust estimated that the reduction in languages’ teaching was costing the economy tens of billions of pounds each year. Rather than respond to this with more demand, the school system has seen examination entries drop. In 2015, Spanish was down 2.4%, French 6% and German 9.2% at GSCE level.

At primary school level, languages are suffering due to a squeezed curriculum and the biblical importance placed on those subjects that are ‘measured’ and inserted into league tables. Most classes barely get past counting from one to ten or repeating the names of the colours. Specialists are few and far between. Anecdotally, many of these lessons are in the afternoon and are hotspots for poor behaviour and low-level disruption.

This is even more concerning in areas of greater disadvantage. Take-up rates for language exams are lower and it is increasingly hard to attract good staff. Is this contributing to the widening gap in British society between the haves and the have-nots?

Surely we don’t want a society where those who have a second home in Tuscany also have had the privilege of good language teaching for their children?

All those who have influence over educational policy have a responsibility to ensure languages are properly taught in schools; amongst many other benefits, it would make a hugely positive contribution in assisting ‘responsible tourism.’



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