Risks of remaining single

10th March 2000 at 00:00
As the Nuffield Languages Inquiry prepares to report, Alan Moys summarises the key issues its members have tackled, and the likely results

Have we as a nation fully assessed the risks and implications of remaining substantially monolingual in a world where our competitors reap the benefits of speaking several languages?

* Are we learning the right balance of languages?

* Should we really continue to teach French to 90 per cent of the school population?

* How can we achieve greater diversity?

* Should we be ensuring an earlier start for all pupils, rather than the 25 per cent who at present begin a language at primary school?

* Can we do nothing to offer a better, more attractive menu to 16-year-olds, most of whom give up languages at that age only to find they need them later?

* Can we ensure that higher education makes a co-ordinated effort to provide a graduate body better equipped with the language skills needed in the global perspective of this new century?

* How best can we provide a better deal for the armies of adult learners, so many of whom are frustrated by the patchy and uncertain provision made for them by our education services?

These are not simply rhetorical questions, but just some of the thorny issues which the Nuffield Languages Inquiry has been grappling with over the past two years. Many in the language teaching world and beyond will be awaiting with interest the final report of the Inquiry, which is due for publication in May. This pound;500,000 project is taking a critical look at the UK's needs for capability in languages, and is assessing whether our present arrangements provide a firm foundation for the future.

The Inquiry, which was launched in July 1998, owes its existence to the vision of the Trustees of the Nuffield Foundation, which has a long and distinguished tradition of support for initiatives in education. Nuffield's funding has ensured that the Inquiry can be entirely independent of government, and can therefore speak plainly when the need arises. And the need certainly does arise. Time and again, members of the Inquiry - particularly those from outside language teaching - have asked "How can this be?" when confronting the more glaring inconsistencies or weaknesses in the current scene. All of which should be no surprise, when we look at the wide-ranging task the Inquiry is attempting, as summarised in the three questions which constitute its terms of reference:

* What capability in languages will the UK need in the next 20 years if it is to fulfil its economic, strategic, social and cultural aims and responsibilities, and the aspirations of its citizens?

* To what extent do present policies and arrangements meet these needs?

* What strategic planning and initiatives will be required?

The members of the Inquiry (see box), drawn in equal numbers from education and employment, have met every month since October 1998 under the joint chairmanship of Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd. Although their recommendations are still under wraps, their report is certain to reflect the widely-held view that purposeful thinking on this subject is long overdue. Indeed, there are many signs that the very existence of this high-profile Inquiry has already had positive effects.

One direct result of its work has been to prompt the Government to institute an inter-departmental committee of ministers and senior officials to look at language policies across and within the whole range of government departments. There are no simple answers, of course, but there are many positive pointers. As a nationwe are waking up to the realisation that speaking only English confers less and less of an advantage. Britain is a richly and increasingly multicultural and multilingual society, and many of our citizens have come to appreciate the advantage of speaking more than one language, just as we have been learning to appreciate the value of the diverse cultural and linguistic mix which in many ways makes Britain attractive to others.

The Inquiry has been struck by just how far public attitudes to the languages issue have moved forward over the past 10-20 years. The intensity of public, media and political interest came as an agreeable surprise for those of us who can recall how difficult it was only a decade or so ago to interest anyone except the languages professionals in anything to do with languages. The traditional stereotypes are crumbling fast, as we try to keep up with the pace of change in areas such as globalisation and the telecommunications revolution. In an NOP poll conducted in October 1998, people across the country were asked to choose between two alternative views:

* Having at least some knowledge of a language is useful;

* These days more and more people learn English, so there is no need to learn a foreign language.

Only 14 per cent chose the "English is enough" view, a startling reminder of how far attitudes are changing, particularly among young people in employment. The realisation that languages open doors to personal and cultural fulfilment is cemented by the harsher realisation that in an increasingly mobile employment market, young Brits with excellent technical or professional qualifications may well be outgunned by their peers from other countries who are equally well qualified but also possess a high level of competence in several languages, including English.

Many committed and able professionals both inside and outside education are endeavouring by a variety of means to raise our national capability in languages. Their efforts have all too often been vitiated by a lack of any strategic overview by government, and a failure to promote the languages message in schools, colleges and employment.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's readiness to speak French on various high-profile occasions has sounded a wake-up call to a public which at last seems eager to listen.

Trevor McDonald reminds us that it is surely time to consign to history P G Wodehouse's splendid picture in The Luck of the Bodkins: "Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French."

Alan Moys is Secretary of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry. Tel: 020 7911 5054nuflang@compuserve.comPO Box 2671, London W1A 3SHThe report is due to be published in May


Joint chairmen: Sir Trevor McDonald, ITN, and Sir John Boyd, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge; Sir Leonard Appleyard, vice-chairman, Barclays Capital; Rosemary Calthorpe, senior manager, Marks amp; Spencer; Dr Glynn Cochrane, communities and anthropology adviser, Rio Tinto; Peter Downes, chair designate of the Association for Language Learning; Professor Michael Kelly, head of languages, University of Southampton; Alwena Lamping, adult education languages specialist; Frank Pignatelli, president, Scottish Association for Language Learning; Dr Jessica Rawson, warden, Merton College, Oxford; Kathy Wicksteed, International Centre Director, Campion School, Northampton; Hugh Morgan Williams, chairman, Canford Group plc.

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