November 2009 Archives

Compulsory modern languages to the age of 16?

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It is embarrassing to admit on a blog dedicated to language matters that since 2002 the British government has not required foreign languages to be taught as compulsory subjects to all children up to the age of 16.  This policy has resulted in a dramatic fall in pupils taking these subjects. 

It is not easy to understand why there is a perception of foreign languages as being "difficult". They are no more difficult than mathematics or chemistry and, where I can understand there may be some who find numbers and formulae more exciting than words, learning a language to GCSE level surely cannot be more taxing on the brain cells.  Arguably, being able to introduce yourself, ask your way around a foreign city and buy items at a market are surely more useful to most young people than being able to apply Pythagoras' theorem or solve quadratic equations. (I know I have never found any practical application for such things!)

Those of us who benefit from our knowledge of languages other than English are at a loss to understand why our government undervalues language skills. It seems to be generally acknowledged that it is easier for the young to learn languages; it becomes increasingly more difficult as one grows older. Although there is a fair amount of enthusiasm for learning languages at evening classes, this method does not allow the learner sufficient regular practice to gain a reasonable level of fluency (particularly if one does not have prior knowledge of other foreign languages) and leads to discouragement and high drop-out rates.


Taking an evening class is not only a slow and laborious way of learning a language, it also does not address the country's need for using languages in business. Perhaps our young people are reluctant to learn foreign languages because they do not see any practical application for them. There is the constant bleat "There is no point. Everyone speaks English".

This is not true. There are millions of people, potential customers, who do not speak English. Perhaps the people we meet on holiday speak English but this is because they recognise the benefit of the tourist dollar/pounds to their economy. They have been employed precisely because of their foreign language skills (hotel receptionists for example often speak two or three languages in addition to their own). These people have learned English because they understand what Willy Brandt once said, "You may buy from me in your own language, but sell to me in mine."

If the UK wishes to sell its goods and services to foreign markets it is surely only polite to speak the language of those we are appealing to. Nationals of other countries speak to the Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Germans, Spanish (etc.) in the local language and so should we. It's a competitive world out there!  By not taking foreign languages to a higher level, our young people will find this country at a great disadvantage in years to come.

There are many other points I could make on this subject but I think I will save them for another day ;-) In closing, I would like to draw your attention to a petition held on the Downing Street website for all those wishing to see a return of the compulsory teaching of modern languages to school pupils up to the age of 16. 


http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/TeachLanguages

Will you be signing?


A day of anniversaries

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News from TrànslationWörks, Bath, 9 November 2009

Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell, heralding a new era not only for East and West Germany but also for the world. It symbolised the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the promise of a new era of peace. In the meantime other political disputes have taken its place but for ordinary families in Germany at least there has been the opportunity to rebuild the lives and relationships that were divided by a border.

Ten years ago today, much less world-shattering, but nevertheless significant in my life, I started out as a translator. A few days earlier, I had sat the Institute of Linguists' Diploma in Translation exam, and without even knowing the results, I started work as an in-house translator in a translation agency in London. Was it a good move? I am often asked. The reply is a resounding "Yes!". As a translator I have the opportunity to be involved every day in an area that never ceases to fascinate me: the inter-relationship of two languages, English and German. Looking back over my career before I embarked upon translation, I cannot now imagine how I lived without it!