Words of wisdom

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Brigitte Boyce, the Association for Language Learning's multilingual new director (above), says languages open up a world of understanding. Harvey McGavin reports

Brigitte Boyce could put "polyglot" on either of her passports and it would not be too far wide of the mark. The new director of the Association for Language Learning has dual nationality (British and Swiss), a string of letters after her name and speaks as many languages as there are days in the week.

She is fluent in English, French and German, competent in Italian and Spanish, learning Turkish and has a passing acquaintance with Arabic. As if that were not enough, she also has an unfulfilled ambition to study Czech. "I have always been attracted to the Slav languages," she muses.

But her mother tongue is Swiss German, a spoken dialect of German-speaking Switzerland that has survived for generations despite having no standard written form. Given her background, does she worry that minority languages are threatened by the increasing global domination of English?

"It's an oversimplification to say that English dominates the world. On one level that is correct, but in most places it is complementary to other languages. You may use English in the workplace or in computer language or to speak to somebody who speaks another language - that's quite natural. But at other times of the day you will speak another language," Dr Boyce says.

"It isn't that English is doing away with the need for other languages. Language is about more than verbal communication, it's about cultural understanding and expression."

Dr Boyce, 38, had what she calls "an idyllic childhood", which was ideal for developing a seemingly boundless facility for languages. She was born and raised in Bern in Switzerland, a country in which German, French, Italian and Romansch are spoken. Her father was an engine driver and the family took advantage of free train tickets to make short journeys to neighbouring countries.

"I remember as a very small child the joy of trying out these other languages, seeing people respond and thinking 'This works'. It brings you closer to people and gives you a sense of achievement and confidence. That's where my love of languages came from.

"In Switzerland you can drive for half an hour and be in another country. It drives my friends nuts when I go back with them. Each time we get out of the car they don't know what language to order their tea in."

She comes to the Association for Language Learning from an extended academic career, most recently as a lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool and previously at Oxford Polytechnic.

Along the way she has accrued a PhD (in European Union policy-making), a BA (Hons), an HND, a BTEC and a teaching certificate. She is now studying for an MBA. "I'm a curious person and I like to learn. The qualifications come as an added bonus," she says.

Dr Boyce is keen to tackle the gender imbalance among language teachers and students, envisaging something along the lines of the Women into Science and Engineering initiative to encourage more boys to take up a foreign tongue.

"Languages aren't a girl'ssubject. But throughout the whole education period girls are more attracted to languages and tend to perform better than boys. And there are more female teachers of foreign languages. It's a circular evolution. We need more male role models in schools."

The dominance of French in school language departments does not bother her, but she would like to see other languages given a higher profile.

"Historically French has been important, and is well established in schools. But that is not to say we are not looking to promote German and Spanish. French should not have a less important role, other languages should be moving up."

The notion of a baccalaureate-style qualification post-16 with a language element appeals to her - "I believe in the idea of a broadly-educated, Renaissance person" - and she sees languages as an integral part of a rounded education.

"The benefits of learning a foreign language go beyond being able to communicate in another language. Many people don't seem to be aware of that and see language as a kind of appendage."

Dr Boyce is a firm advocate of the benefits of early encounters with other languages ("that way the inhibitions don't build up") and of a co-ordinated, national strategy on primary language teaching.

"But I wouldn't want a strategy to be language-specific. There is a lot of research evidence to show that, if you have learned one foreign language, you are much more likely to want to learn another and learning becomes easier. "

Most of all, we should open our eyes and ears to the many languages that surround us. Television producers should subtitle foreign dialogue rather than dub it, for example, and children could try using computer software and games on foreign language settings, Dr Boyce suggests.

"We have so many opportunities to expose British children to languages. Exposure and immersion really do help. That's the environment I grew up in and it was wonderful. It makes me feel at home to hear lots of languages."

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