How badly do we want to communicate?

How badly do we want to communicate?

Image by Petra from Pixabay

In order to add billions to the UK’s GDP, the Government wants to double the number of 14-15 year olds who study a foreign language at school, primarily through investing £14.9 million in a Centre of Excellence to:

“Improve standards of language teaching across the country in line with the teaching methods set out in Ian Bauckham’s 2016 Modern foreign languages pedagogy review.” (1)

The review was conducted for the Teaching Schools Council and its 15 Key Recommendations therefore naturally focus on what schools can do to ensure that their teaching is as good as it can be. However, in his Executive Summary Bauckham identified that schools’ restricting their languages provision was “more often than not driven by small or falling pupil numbers.” (2) We cannot reverse declining demand by focussing our efforts entirely on the standard of supply.

We need a profound mindshift in the way that the British public as whole thinks about languages – especially in an era of simultaneous digital translation powered by Artificial Intelligence. (3)

Learning a language is hard and requires a considerable investment of time. The success of the Mandarin Excellence Programme (which has led to the Government’s plan to establish a national Centre of Excellence for a broader range of languages) is in no small part due to the requirement that students engage with the language for at least 8 hours a week. Students need a very compelling reason to make that level of commitment, and the promise of future economic rewards – for both the individual and the country – has proven to be insufficient for the majority over the last two decades.

The assumption, upheld in Key Recommendation 2 of the review, is that the objective of learning a language is communication and most of the other Key Recommendations are concerned with the knowledge (like vocabulary and grammar) and skills (like translation) required to be able to communicate through speaking and writing. The trouble is that these are the very things that technology is making available to us instantly with rapidly improving accuracy. Why should students bother sacrificing so much to acquire something that their phones can already do for them?

To be willing to invest in learning a foreign language, you have to want to communicate with the speakers of that language. To invest heavily, you have to want badly. How much do we – as individuals and as a country – really want to communicate with the speakers of Spanish, French, German, Arabic and Chinese? And not just on our terms (in our language) but on theirs (in their language)?

What would make the 60% of teenagers who do not choose to take a language at school at the moment want to communicate with speakers of another language badly enough that they changed their choices?

Key Recommendation 3 proposes that schools provide pupils with stimulating content produced in the new language and exposure to the culture, history and literature of its speakers. Key Recommendation 5 calls for “opportunities to interact with native speakers, both in person and through video links.” (2)

Our children have to be convinced that these “foreigners” are interesting enough that is worth our time and effort to really get to know them and their stories. And if we are not convinced that they are – seeing them simply as a resource for our own “economic benefit” (1) – then how can we expect our children to be?

Few of us are in a position to really influence Government policy or schools practice, but all of us have a role to play in defining our nation’s attitude towards speakers of other languages, whether they are in our country or theirs. And we will reap what we sow.