Monday, October 06, 2003

On British children learning foreign languages

Brian Micklethwait has a piece on the British government setting up a new centralised bureacracy in order to encourage the teaching of foreign languages in British primary schools. Brian is disdainful, believing that all that will happen is that the bureacracy will eat up the budget for teaching languages, and generally get in the way of actual education. Brian is very likely right, but none the less I have some thoughts on whether British children are likely to learn more foreign languages in the future than they do now. And, oddly enough, I am reasonably optimistic.

I studied a couple of years in German at high school. I didn't learn to speak German, as I didn't study it for long enough, and I wasn't taught well enough. It would have been better if I had leaned to speak German, but oddly enough it still wasn't a waste of time. One major reason for this was that for some unearthly reason the fad at that time in the teaching of English was that it was not necessary to teach any formal grammar at all. Somehow the idea was that you learn your language through speaking it, and knowing what a noun and a verb are is a distraction. Or something.

And, quite seriously, my English teachers were not required or even encouraged to teach me even that much - what is a noun and what is a verb. However, when studying German I was taught some grammar: so I thus learned the difference between a past tense and a past participle, and the difference between the nominative and the accusative cases. And it was certainly worth it for this reason alone. Plus I did at least learn enough German that when I go to Germany I can figure out what signs say, even if I cannot understand more than a tiny fraction of what people are saying.

Of course, at school I was not even required to study the small amount of a foreign language that I did. (However, I was encouraged to do so by my mother in particular. And she was absolutely right to encourage it). And amongst my fellow students the response to the idea of my learning German was "Why on earth would you want to do that?". Now part of this was the simple issue that English is the dominant language of the world: it is perfectly possible to function at almost any level in our globalised world speaking only English. This is not true in any other language. Part of this, I now realise, was that I was going to end up a more globally minded person than many of my classmates, and to be honest I was even then, although I perhaps didn't realise it yet. Since then, I've been to Germany more times than most of my classmates have. (They are Australians though. At least a few of them have been to Bavaria towards the end of September, if nowhere else in Germany).

However, the point about living in Australia is that it is isolated. While you do hear foreign languages spoken in the street from time to time, when you go up in Australia you never go anywhere where English is not the normal language of discourse. I did not visit a country where English was not the normal language spoken until I visited Hong Kong in 1987, and even that was a place where English was actually an official language and where it was the language of officialdom, if not most of the population. Excluding a day trip into China proper on that trip, I didn't visit an entirely foreign language speaking country until I visited France in 1992 when I was 23 years old.

And for encouraging you to learn a foreign language, there is nothing like being immersed in one, and wishing that you could communicate. I am sure that if I had been exposed to foreign languages like this when I was a child, I would have been pretty eager to learn them.

And this, rather than new bureacracies designed to encourage today's children to learn languages, is what strikes me as perhaps encouraging. With travel in Europe costing as little as it now does, huge numbers of British children today travel regularly to France and Spain in particular. Does this make them want to learn foreign languages? I have to think that in some cases that it must. I think it would have at least had this effect on me if it had been something I was exposed to as a child. This is a different thing to growing up in a non-English speaking country, particularly a small one, where you can see an immense world out there and you know you are unable to participate in it properly without learning English. But it is something. And I shall be interesting in seeing where we are on that particular issue in a few years time.

(While Australian children travel outside the country more than they did 20 years ago, they still do so much less frequently than do British people, because of the distance and expense. And the languages of most countries near Australia are non Indo-European and thus much harder to learn. (Okay, there are one or two French speaking islands in the Pacific, but that is about it). I think even Australian children actually are learning more languages. But it is not the same as it potentially is in Britain).

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