Not sucha simple business

9th March 2001 at 00:00
The languages-for-economic-success argument is flawed, says Helen Vandevelde.

Foreign language teachers have been ill-served by the lobbyists who speak on their behalf. The latest report, Languages: the next generation, published by the Nuffield Languages Inquiry last year, served up the reheated leftovers of decades of ineffective campaigning.

In the 21st century consumers do not respond to empty threats. If foreign languages are so critical to individual wealth and employability, why are we experiencing an acute skills shortage? Despite the predictions of the past 30 years, those doomed monolinguals are doing just dandy, thank you. Granted, they rule themselves out of the stimulation afforded by simultaneous interpretation of speeches about sugar beet quotas in the European Parliament. But do they lose out on much else?

The answer is "Yes, they do", but when organisations promoting foreign language strategies avoid telling it how it really is, they just fail to convince. Take the commercial perspective. The business needs to expand into a new national market. "You see," crow the lobbyists, "if only you'd trained your people to speak Spanish, you wouldn't be in this mess now." Except that the company would be in a mess - it would have lots of problems, such as the time it takes to get its staff beyond the point where they are asking for directions to the post office in Spanish, even though they will be mystified when they hear the reply. And they will have problems deciding which language to train their people in before they know which market they need to expand into.

If a company needs to access foreign language skills, training its current workforce is not the answer. There are much more effective strategies, such as recruiting new people with the right mix of specialist and language skills. And using external consultancy to do the sophisticated bits, such as devising a promotional campaign that is customised to the new market.

The education system, too, loses the argument by default, because its product range has been left stranded by globalisation. You cannot sustain the argument that globalisation, the rapid increase in multinational companies and the growth of cross-cultural teams all highlight the need for foreign language skills if all you can offer is French, or German if you are lucky. Even the French-for-holidays argument has been overridden by the rapid expansionof cheap holiday packages to most parts of the planet.

How do we create a climate where the foreign languages debate is no longer seen as dominated by the self-serving arguments of language education and training providers? Here are some suggestions:

* Stop pretending. Lots of people will do well without having foreign languages: doctors; air traffic controllers; management consultants; software engineers; teachers. There is enough work in the English-speaking world to keep a wide range of professions and specialisms going without a foreign language component.

* Deploy the arguments that score the direct hits. If the solution for companies is to recruit language skills directly, those skills have a market value for individuals. Schools have a convincing commercial case for an early start to language learning.

* Do not treat all languages equally. It is regrettable, but we cannot pretend that learning Welsh, or even German, is as important as learning Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. We need to offer the world languages that, alongside English, will dominate global communication in the new century.

And here are some strategies for language teachers who want to help their students on the basis of informed judgments about the market value of foreign languages:

* Be honest with your consumers. It is disingenuous to cry shame when young people who are better suited to vocational pathways drop French. French is not an odds-on bet for wealth creation in the global economy.

* Focus on learning how to learn a language. The language infrastructure in the UK will not let us diversify our foreign language offering. So promote the independent learning skills that will enable your students to take up, under their own steam, a second or third language with a global reach.

* Update your knowledge on career options involving different languages. The labour market is changing all the time. Your credibility depends on keeping abreast of the relative value of different language investments.

Nuffield wants government to appoint a languages tsar. But the case for languages does not share the certainties associated with campaigns against homelessness or the misuse of drugs. A more honest and differentiated approach to the languages debate would have greater authority.

Helen Vandevelde is a linguist, business consultant and conference presenter

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