Minding Your Language

Posted in : Stevenson's Education Updates on 8 January 2016
John Stevenson
Education Consultant

In Toulouse just before Christmas for the Ulster Rugby match, I once again proudly trotted out my schoolboy French. (In case you have forgotten, I often brag about my Grade 1 O Level pass from 1968, in the days when a grade 1 was the top one!) Linguistically, things went well at first and I ordered drinks and food with no trouble at all. Before the match and wandering around the Christmas market, I engaged in short conversations with more of the locals with limited success. After the match, emboldened by a famous victory and some vin de la region, I bit off much more than I could chew. Staggering from one franglais-based encounter to the next, it quickly became apparent what the trouble was. When they spoke back to me at normal speed in everyday French, I hadn’t a clue what they were saying.

Since my sixth form days at Atlantic College I have had a huge admiration for people who can speak more than one language. While most of my fellow students, from a great variety of different countries, were doing A levels in a variety of subjects, with English as the main language of instruction and dialogue, many of my English, Welsh and Scottish counterparts had difficulty understanding my strong Belfast accent. My German friend Conrad learned his physics in English but read the French newspapers for fun. The Dutch collectively seemed to have a passing fluency with every modern European language.  I had wanted to carry on with French but it couldn’t be fitted into my science-maths based timetable, so instead I took on subsidiary courses in Russian and World Literature. Whilst I retain a rudimentary knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and know the Russian word for beer, I fear that I have now no useful ability at all to communicate to anyone from that part of the world.

So, I was interested to read on the BBC news website, that according to statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, entries in the UK to modern foreign language degree courses fell by 16% between 2007/08 and 2013/14. French fell by 25%, German by 34% and Spanish by 1%. In addition in 2015 entries for GCSE languages were also down compared to the previous year: French down 6.2%, German down 9.2% and Spanish down 2.4%. However, a more startling pattern emerges if you look further back. Since 2005 French entries have dropped by 42%, while German is even worse with a 49% fall. Bucking the trend Spanish has actually shown a 45.3% rise since then. I believe A level entries reflect the same sort of pattern.

I guess it is not just economic disadvantages that are associated with a dearth of fluent foreign language speakers, although that may well be the most obvious and immediate concern. If a new Northern Ireland business starts up, what are the chances of finding a local recruit fluent in French, let alone Cantonese, to join the sales team? What really worries me, however, is the insular and parochial attitudes that are associated with an approach that assumes that everyone else will learn to speak English. Any foreign language brings with it ways of expressing yourself and ways of thinking that can broaden your outlook and expand your horizons. Other languages represent gateways to greater understanding and appreciation of history, culture, politics and the human condition. Northern Ireland culture often suffers from acute insularity and everyone, especially members of our political classes, could benefit from exposure to the alternative ways of making sense of the world which are intrinsic to the mental skills involved in learning an alternative language.

Now, I understand that there are sensitivities around the use and teaching of the Irish language in our community and I certainly deplore any attempt to politicise or co-opt Irish for sectarian purposes. However, Irish is an ancient tongue with a significant literature behind it and has influenced other European languages including English. It is built into the fabric of our land in terms of place names and cultural references and survives despite colonial attempts to destroy it. The benefits of learning a new language apply equally and just as significantly if that language is Irish.

It would therefore be good if all our politicians got behind the British Council’s call to learn a language as a New Year’s resolution in 2016 and make it clear that it doesn’t really matter what language is chosen. The benefits of cultural appreciation, memory development and augmented communication are obvious. In addition, several recent studies have claimed that bilingual people enjoy a form of protection against the onset and ravages of dementia. Now there’s a good reason for me to go back to my French!

This article is correct at 08/01/2016
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John Stevenson
Education Consultant

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