One will not add up in a world market;Subject of the week;Modern Languages

5th March 1999 at 00:00
With EMU looming, it's high time we learned to speak a second language, says Chris Gill

The old attitude of "who needs to speak a foreign language when everyone speaks English?" will not do when - whatever certain politicians think - we become part of the European Monetary Union.

And when we do we're going to be competing more and more with Europeans who speak foreign languages better than most of us. These examples show why urgency is needed:

* Many big multinational companies, such as BMW and Siemens, have a policy of only employing people who speak at least two languages. Both are big employers in the UK.

* British Airways runs its own training section and in-house exam to ensure that all employees keep up their second language. At a recent induction course at Heathrow, a large proportion of the new entrants had been recruited from mainland Europe. There weren't enough British graduates with the appropriate language skills.

* Non-English speakers are often appalled that they cannot find a doctor in England who speaks any language other than English. it is unthinkable in many countries for someone as highly trained as a doctor to be restricted to being able to practise in only one language.

* There is an increasing number of refugees and other immigrants who need help and advice. Bedford and Luton, where I work, have long been used to Italians, Poles and Bangladeshis, but more and more people from other nationalities are arriving in this area. How do I know this? Because I am being asked to do interpreting work in the housing office and in legal firms because nobody there can speak French well enough. A housing officer I met was able to greet a confused Algerian refugee in French and it was remarkable how even this small gesture had a calming effect.

* Legend has it that the late Chancellor of Germany, Willy Brandt, said:

"if you want to buy a BMW from me I will happily speak to you in English, but if you want to sell me a Rover I want to be told about it in German." The Germans have since solved this particular problem, of course, by buying the whole company.

When you think about it, most parts of the world make use of more than one language. There are now more Spanish than English speakers in the US, and Japanese is becoming increasingly necessary in Australia and Canada. It is not exceptional to have more than one language, it is rather odd to have less than two.

Now that it may soon be possible to avoid doing languages in key stage 4, and the literacy and numeracy hours are sounding the death knell of any chance of doing languages at key stage 2, the squeeze is on.

At last we can dump those disaffected kids and give them something "more appropriate" to do, and at the same time we can solve the chronic shortage of language teachers by simply not having to employ so many of them. Foreign language learning will return to a nice little niche subject, to be studied only by the truly gifted linguist, and of no use to anyone in the real world.

Meanwhile, as this real world shrinks and English people are competing more and more with other nationals for the same jobs, we must ask ourselves whether we are helping our children to succeed by telling them that language learning is only for those who have a gift for it. If you're a human being, you have a gift for language: it just needs to be developed.

Chris Gill is Bedfordshire adviser for languages

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