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Location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom

Saturday, August 26, 2006

tongue-tied

There has been a lot of coverage this week of the decreasing number of pupils taking modern languages at GCSE and at A-level, thus forcing universities to limit the choice of languages offered or worse still, close departments, due to the declining number of linguists. There was an article in today's Guardian by Agnès Poirier, who gives us many valuable reasons for learning languages and why giving children the choice to drop languages at 16 is depriving them of access to whole new worlds. Here are some bits and pieces from her article, and the whole thing can be read here

Why can't languages be taught as compulsory subjects from nursery to A-level, as they are in almost every country in Europe? I didn't have much say in what languages I learnt back in France. It was obligatoire, no bargaining possible. I had to learn two new langues vivantes (though I could choose which two among a poor choice of five) and one or two langues mortes, Latin and Greek. If I had been given the choice, I probably wouldn't have chosen any, and right now I would be writing in French and living in Paris. What does a child know?

The majority of British youth are deprived of one of life's greatest joys: access to whole new worlds in which others see things differently, express their feelings and lead their lives in unexpected ways.

There is no secret: to really get to see things as others do, and thus to understand them, one must master their language and, in the process, endure hardship and ridicule. Not a job for the faint-hearted. Try it and you'll be mocked for your accent; you'll struggle to make yourself heard, let alone be understood; you will stumble on words, fall silent, unable to keep up the pace of the conversation; you'll suffer a thousand deaths, that of continual misunderstandings, the kind newly arrived immigrants face every day, everywhere in the world.

But once the many hurdles are passed, you are guaranteed heavenly surprises and otherworldly gifts. You lived your life in black and white; it is now in colour. A whole new horizon has opened up. This is precisely why there is so much clamour for tests to ensure that new immigrants to the UK speak good English.

And for those sceptical about the usefulness of languages, let's remember that having studied foreign languages can help you get a job, and a better one. One survey showed the percentage of graduates in single honours languages who were still looking for work five months after their graduation was 5%, and 11% for media studies.

When somebody refuses to learn someone else's language on the grounds that it is not useful, they implicitly reject the other's culture and their way of seeing the world - not a very good start for universal peace and understanding. Not a helpful way to make the world a more complex and richer place to live in either. Rather a recipe for unilateral, over-simplistic dogmas, such as the war on terror.

Now, let's get back to basics. What schools need to teach children is simple: mathematics, plumbing and three languages. Au travail!

4 Comments:

Blogger Koji said...

I liked the article a lot, and actually wrote a bit about the article in my blog as well. Thank you Jenny!

11:00 PM  
Blogger impermissiblewanyü said...

One of the responses following the article makes sense to me: it says that other subjects can also teach about opening up pupils' world views and encouraging their curiosity toward other cultures.

And I suppose more language teaching or making foreign language a compulsory subject does not really help saving extinguishing languages, which sounds like a false justification for language teachers' career attitude; after all, can one really force pupils to learn a language that have no relevance to them at all but 'you got to learn it otherwise it dies!'

doesn't make sense, does it?

To save a dying language is not possible, because languages are only living when people use them to communicate in everyday life, otherwise they'll be kept in museums and linguistics departments...

12:24 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think that's interesting. I wish I were better at languages. I can barely remember my french. Je comprends rien, after all!

So maybe making people do languages until 18 would be a good idea. But then, making them study _blank_ until 18 might do them good as well. For example, if Agnes had done a little more maths then she might not be under the impression that

"One survey showed the percentage of graduates in single honours languages who were still looking for work five months after their graduation was 5%, and 11% for media studies."

lends any support to her argument.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous wanyu said...

drowning???!!!

6:11 PM  

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