Language is used to get things done, to relate to other people, to access culture, history and entertainment and to pass on messages to the future. It is also common now to learn and use a second language, or indeed, in many countries, even more.
Languages go beyond education, touching on so many of the social and interpersonal things people wish to do with their lives. And yet they are sometimes isolated into a purely educational context, with all that can imply about being academic or even esoteric. Languages do not belong out of reach, on the shelf, reserved for certain people. They belong to everyone, in every walk of life, and are uniquely practical.
Young people meeting up on international projects do not see their languages as dry school subjects. They are concerned with the serious business of telling jokes, getting things done and making friends. They experience the excitement of building up to making their first social statement in another language, and satisfaction when something happens as the result of what they say.
It is a small-scale thing but by no means trivial. Many people in the United Kingdom know and use languages other than English, from the many bilingual people, to sign-language users, those who work between cultures and countries, and people who enjoy international literature and arts at many levels. There are thousands who opt in every year. The European Year of Languages has much to celebrate.
Yet the myth persists that the British are no good at languages. Teachers of languages are constantly searching for strategies and resourceswhich stimulate their learners through the more difficult periods of learning, as illustrated in these pages. They create motivation and personal interest by bringing their own enthusiasm and experiences to the fore. They make summer visits abroad, not only refining their professional skills but also collecting interesting resources. Learners of all abilities gain exceptional self-confidence from their achievement with a language, thanks largely to the work of these teachers. Yet just one newspaper headline or throwaway remark on television undermines their labours for weeks. It may be "just light-hearted banter" and not xenophobic or insular at all in intention; so how come it does so much harm? Maybe the UK has currently given up its international perspective in favour of a parochial inward-looking ethos, reflected in the obsession with grades and inspections.
The nation's language teachers maintain the international perspective for the future. The European Year of Languages provides scope for enhancing the status and improving the profile of language learning. It will require open-mindedness from those who do inadvertent harm as well as those already making a remarkable ongoing commitment. At least we are getting a whole year not just a day to get languages off the shelf. Carpe annum!
Steven Fawkes is president of the Association for Language Learning, 150 Railway Terrace, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 3HN. Tel: 01788 546443.Web: www.all-languages.org.ukMotivation ... for all! is the theme of ALL's annual Language World conference and exhibition April 6-8, 2001 at UMIST, Manchester. Details from ALL at the address above