Stephen Jones of CILT calls for a national campaign to foster better language skills
A two-year inquiry into the UK's language capability, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, delivered its report in May. It found that capability in other languages is crucially important; that at the moment we are doing badly; and that we must do better.
Some ask: where is the problem? Employers faced with a need to communicate in another language simply buy in the expertise, often from a native speaker. More generally, since English is in the process of becoming the language of international communication, who here needs foreign languages?
In the bad old days, modern foreign languages were taught as academic subjects, much as Latin and Greek were taught, and acquired the reputation of being difficult. Teaching nowadays recognises that languages are for communication and that imaginative approaches, authentic materials and ICT to bring them to life. CILT is in daily contact with good practice and outstanding achievement in language learning in all areas of education. Why then are we British, when weighed in the balance, still found wanting?
The teaching challenge across the curriculum is to find ways of making new material accessible and stimulating. Foreign language teachers are perhaps alone in asking learners to step into territory where even the means of expression are unfamiliar, to make strange noises, and to encounter alien ways of thought. Inviting learners to do this as they tangle with the uncertainties of adolescence gives the secondary language teacher a particularly hard job.
It s arguable that the all-pervasiveness of English reduces this sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity for the young of other countries, and perhaps renders the language learning process in general more approachable and routine.
Whatever the reasons, it seems evident that we in these islands grow up more suspicious of and defensive towards people and things foreign further than most: the "hooligans anglais" phenomenon and much of the so-called debate on Europe bear regular witness. The many British exceptions to this generalisation know that the enthusiastic pursuit of the European dimension in France, Spain, Italy and Germany makes those countries no less French, Spanish, Italian and German than ever they were. But we persist in believing that our national identity is in danger of being swallowed up in some European amalgam.
This may bring us back to the all-pervasiveness of English. Is this lack of confidence in ourselves due in some measure to our feeling that we no longer have ownership and control over our own language? It is at all events something we need to address. As the co-chairmen of the Nuffield Inquiry put it: "In a world of alliances and partnerships we need to understand where others are coming from ... the ability to communicate across cultures . . . is a key skill." To effect this sea-change will be a long-term job, but it urgently needs launching with a concerted national campaign.
Stephen Jones is chairman of governors at the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, 20 Bedfordbury, London WC2N 4LB. Tel: 020 2379 5101. Web: www.cilt.org.uk