Nick Baines: Generations lost for words as we fail our children over learning languages

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At the age of 91, and assuming he might soon die, the former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, decided to write down the wisdom he had gleaned during his long life. The book Ausser Dienst (Out of Office) is an astute and enjoyable read from a man who speaks better English than I do. In one section he boldly suggests that no German politician should think of entering the Bundestag unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree.

The reason behind this suggestion is simple: we can only understand our own culture if we look at it through the lens of another culture... and to do that we need to know something of the language of that culture. When I said this to Ken Livingstone backstage in a television studio a couple of years ago, he laughed and said: “Well, we wouldn’t have any MPs in Parliament if we did that.”

He’d hit the nail on the head. But it wasn’t funny.

The number of students studying German to GCSE in 2001 was 135,133. By 2011, it had fallen to 60,887. In French, the fall was from 347,007 to 154,221. At A-level, the trend is similar. Students of French declined from 17,939 in 2001 to 13,196 in 2011. German went down from 8,446 to 5,106.

Interestingly, the figures for German had increased year on year after the introduction of the National Curriculum from 1985 onwards, which goes to show how essential political backing is to a cultural priority. Excellent university language departments are closing faster than Greek economics classes.

However we look at these statistics (and other factors such as the introduction of AS-levels might also be considered), they expose a disastrous decline in language learning in the UK. Many people will simply ask “so what?” – as if foreign languages are a minority sport for the genetically so-predisposed.

Yet, this decline begs many questions that surely impact on our cultural depth, our economic and political competence, and our view of education.

During a conversation with German businessmen, one Englishman claimed that we don’t need to speak German because all business is done in English anyway. One of the Germans responded: “But you don’t know what we are saying behind your back – and that is where the real work is done.” There was no response to that.

The problem here is not primarily to do with teachers – many language teachers are frustrated beyond words at the squeezed and discouraging culture that drives our education system. Rather, it is primarily to do with an inane political agenda that seems only to value anything that can be bought or sold or valued on a spreadsheet. Languages, philosophy and other humanities don’t attract sponsorship from BP.

However, economic pragmatism cannot be the primary reason for extolling language learning. Try, for example, the educational argument. Can we truly call someone educated if they are able only to see the world through the eyes of their own culture? Are we not depriving our children of the richness that can only be mined by some acquaintance with a language stranger than our own? Even a good translation does not convey the “depth” of what cannot always be translated anyway. Some words simply cannot be conveyed by an “equivalent”.

But, learning a language also presupposes some understanding of our own native tongue: how it works, how meaning is conveyed, how communication is structured. Grammar is clearly too boring to teach children with a negligible attention span in the classroom – which is a bit like telling an architect that he can design a beautiful building without bothering with mathematical calculations about stresses and load-bearing equations.

And this brings me to the big problem in the way languages are being taught, particularly up to GCSE.

Teaching kids to repeat phrases like a parrot cannot and does not enable or encourage them to create speech. Being able to ask for a stamp in a post office in Berlin doesn’t help much if you then need to ask why they got an Englishman to design the dome atop the Reichstag. How can anyone be confident (or even curious) about initiating speech if they have no grammatical framework on which to build or hang the words?

I might be missing something here, but the weakness is immediately exposed when the GCSE stars start A-level and discover that they lack the basic framework for understanding and creating language.

I accept that it is easy to moan about the decline in language learning, as if it were a bit of nostalgic special pleading from a former professional linguist (Russian, German and French) who wants to recover a lost world.

But it is more serious than that. Not only are we not producing the professional linguists of the future, we are also losing the cohort from which the next generation of language teachers should emerge.

Language learning is key to social mobility and confidence in the modern world. It is too important to be left to decline by those who never got it in the first place.