How to save MFL? Paint a brighter global future…

6th January 2017 at 00:00
As students flee modern foreign languages in droves, Alistair McConville says that we should stop talking about the earning potential of subjects and instead appeal to pupils’ youthful sense of social empathy – especially at a time of political upheaval around the world

There are two strikingly different stories in the Bible about multilingualism.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells how God objected to the cooperation of different peoples, as they built a tower to reach towards heaven. To prevent them getting too close, he cast them into confusion and caused them to speak different languages. The building project failed: multilingualism was their punishment for hubris.

About 500 years later, at Pentecost, so the story goes, the coming of the Holy Spirit brought the faithful the supernaturally inspired ability to speak and understand one another’s language. No aspiration to a common tongue here, but a joyful multilingual merging of cultures – an altogether more positive spin on linguistic diversity.

It is interesting to ask yourself which ancient paradigm resonates more strongly: the notion of multilingualism as an inconvenience to be overcome by a single language – Esperanto, anybody? – or joyful polyglots being a symbol of multicultural harmony. Opinion among students about the value of learning languages is divided, we know.

For some, the ability to access another language opens exciting horizons, bringing them closer to their fellow man, the prospect of working abroad, discovering other cultures and becoming a citizen of the world.

For others, the “foreign languages as punishment” narrative seems all too plausible. The what’s-the-point argument has considerable force in the imaginations of many teenagers when faced with learning a list of common ailments in French, or the difference between the subjunctive and the dative in German.

Ancient history repeating

We should take their question seriously, for language learning is slowly dying out. Following the decision in 2004 by Labour to make foreign language learning optional at GCSE, A-level numbers in the subject over the next decade fell by nearly 50 per cent. Over the past four years at GCSE, the number of students taking French has dropped by more than 30,000 and German by about 12,000.

The trend is decidedly downwards and if we want to arrest that, we need to answer that central “What’s the point?’ question in a way that turns the heads of young people, that makes them really understand why they should embrace language learning.

So far, we have not found a compelling enough argument to do that.

The usual argument in favour of learning modern foreign languages (MFL) is centred around usefulness and economic need.

It is easy to make the case for the necessity of English, science and maths: without this foundational knowledge, the life opportunities of young people are likely to be disadvantaged, so we should have them study these subjects, whether they want to or not. They aren’t old enough to make that decision for themselves. The argument just about holds water for all but the most anarchically minded.

But French? Why take French and not German? Or Spanish? Or Mandarin? If we can do without one, can’t we do without all?

This is a deeply political and moral issue, bound up with the future of the world

It’s increasingly clear that none of these are “essential”, so they must belong in a category of their own: nice-to-haves; icing on the cake; quixotic fripperies; or the sign of a dilettante.

Perhaps MFL-deniers are right that learning foreign languages is an anachronism in an age in which Google can translate chunks of text into broadly recognisable English in a flash, and when much of the rest of the world is decent enough to learn our mother tongue. There must be people in Silicon Valley working on live voice-translation apps as I write, making interpreters quake in their boots. If they can make a driverless car…

But hang on. Isn’t this simply the crassest cultural imperialism? Didn’t the Romans think in rather similar terms about the desirability of Latin as a lingua franca? How well did that go for their cultural longevity?

Perhaps it was part of the origins of their demise: early globalisation drifting towards decadence and fatal complacency. Roman historian Tacitus, 2,000 years ago, saw the dangers of annexed peoples moving towards monoculturalism. Writing about the Britons, seduced into becoming Latin speakers by their cultural masters, he said: “And so the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.”

Monoglot misunderstanding

And so we concentrate on economic arguments. There is a basic misunderstanding, we point out, at the heart of many young people’s pragmatic rejection of language learning, which is that there’s no direct use for English speakers in broadening their linguistic base.

This is far from the case. Baroness Coussins, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on modern languages, estimates that the cost of our monoglot tendencies to the UK economy is close to £50 billion; this loss is not only at executive level, but permeates clerical and administrative functions, too. It particularly hits export opportunities, when businesses cannot recruit people with the skills to carry out basic trading functions.

The CBI/Pearson education and skills survey shows that nearly two-thirds of UK businesses require foreign language skills. John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, also laments the view that everyone else in the business world speaks English. Simply not true, he says.

The government is well versed in these economic arguments, which are beyond dispute, and is taking steps to reinvigorate language learning. Modern foreign languages’ inclusion in the English Baccalaureate signals the high esteem in which they are held. It is now a compulsory part of key stage 2. Yet, this year, the first year of Progress 8 buckets, MFL entries still dropped.

The economic argument is not persuasive enough for our young people. In reality, it never has been. It seems to me that this tactic is used far too extensively as a stick with which to beat young people towards their GCSEs, and it can easily render the sense that the whole of their time at school is a mere preparation for the workplace. It does not work.

The economic argument is not persuasive enough for our young people

How can we put the case differently?

I recently met Michael James, a splendidly idealistic postgraduate student in language education at the University of Cambridge. His explanation of the purpose of his study caused a stirring of admiration. He is studying so that he can return to his home country of South Africa and establish a programme for linguistically diverse post-apartheid communities to improve mutual understanding by learning one another’s mother tongues.

What an inspiring vision of language learning as a gateway to reconciliation in conflict-torn communities. This is a mission that anyone ought to be able to get excited about. It is the beginnings of a cultural argument for MFL that, I believe, young people are ready to buy into.

Language learning can break down the sense of “the other”. It can have a genuine moral impact. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

James says: “This idea underpins my view of the worth and motivation for language learning – especially the languages of those who have been historically oppressed or rendered powerless. For healing to take place between victim and perpetrator, there needs to be communication between hearts, not heads. I think that there’s a responsibility upon mother-tongue (predominantly white) English-speaking South Africans to learn languages like Tswana, Zulu, or Xhosa, as a gesture of goodwill, and as a precursor of a comprehensive reconciliation and healing within the civic life of our country.”

There’s the rub. If we persist in our assumption that everyone else will fall in with English, we present the arrogant face of Empire to the rest of the world. When we embark on learning someone else’s language, we extend the hand of friendship to their whole way of being, indicating a willingness to learn from, value and open up to them.

What makes me think this argument would have any more appeal to young people than hard financial fact?

We should consider Brexit here and how the polling statistics made clear that young people were the least eager to withdraw from Europe. We should make the argument to them that multilingualism is a symbolic, as well as a pragmatic, way of sustaining their desire to remain European, indeed, global citizens and defy the dark spectre of right-wing nationalism that haunts so many democratic countries today.

Language barriers

This is a deeply political and moral issue, and is bound up with the future of their world. Will they accept the ever-increasing building of walls and hardening of stances towards movement of people, or will they embrace diversity and talk to their neighbour about how they might solve global challenges together?

Here we have a more morally compelling perspective that the GCSEs-for-the-sake-of-economic-prospects argument, which gets trotted out deadeningly all too often.

Our collective attitude to education has become dishearteningly instrumentalist and individualistic, and is becoming correspondingly uninspiring. Learning of all kinds is viewed through the prism of the question, “What’s in it for me?” and we tend to unconsciously absorb society’s prevailing assumption that “what’s in it for us” should be about lifetime earning potential, short-term employment prospects, or other material inducements.

We have seen that, for languages, there are robust answers to these questions in pragmatic, hard-cash terms, though they are not sufficiently well known by young people, who have largely bought the argument for science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, but not languages, as shown in uptake trends. Of course, there should be something “in it” for the language learner, and there is, but they should also be open to the wider question: “What’s in it for society as a whole if we were to become a nation of language learners?”

The answer: greater understanding across cultures; more empathy with the diversity of our neighbours; heightened tolerance; warmer receptions from hosts when abroad; reduced chances of conflict; and access to the cultural jewels of the world. In other words, collective inducements to be valued alongside individual ones.

Differences are to be cherished, admired and protected.

Education is not only, or even primarily, about the practical and monetary usefulness of its lessons. It is an intrinsic “good” that is necessary to human flourishing. We recognise this when we include education in the list of universal human rights alongside access to food and shelter. It is a fundamental part of our nature to seek to understand not only the world around us but also one another, and languages are a crucial, revelatory window on the lives of others.

We do our schoolchildren a disservice if we do not trust them to embrace this argument and continue to peddle the instrumentalist line to them. Young children are spectacularly empathetic and we should strive to win them over to this view before cynicism overwhelms them.

Linguist David Crystal, noting that thousands of languages are dying out, has argued that our linguistic diversity should be prized as highly as our literary, artistic or biological diversity. They have aesthetic value in and of themselves. Differences are to be cherished, admired and protected.

Learning other languages can and should be a beautiful act of contemplating human creativity, and expressing one’s openness to others. It is useful not only for mammon-inspired ends, but also far nobler aims of mutual understanding, multicultural harmony, and the pursuit of peaceful, sensitive collaboration in the face of global challenges.

This is what we should tell our kids.


Alistair McConville is deputy head of Bedales School in Steep, Hampshire

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