Est-ce qu’il faut parler les langues?

There have been a lot of pieces in the news the last few days, prompted by the GSCE results and the fact that, apart from Spanish, numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages have dropped. The Independent leader criticises the decision to scrap mandatory languages at secondary level, saying:

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

The Guardian editorial says

A suspicion that the web is more Anglosphere-wide than worldwide fuels a feeling that others are under more pressure to learn our language than we are to master theirs. Within a learn-to-earn educational philosophy, it is then a short step to deciding that our priorities should lie elsewhere. This is a dangerous line of argument, even in its own terms. If the weave of the web is working in favour of English, there is an awfully long way to go. Three in four of the world’s people speak no English, which is a lot of people to give up hope of trading with. More profoundly, to forgo familiarity with foreign languages is to forgo the chance to see the world from a foreign point of view.

which reminds me of the argument I always used at school when people asked why I was doing languages – “I can chat up 3 times as many boys as you can”. Even though the likelihood of the 15-year-old me chatting up any boy no matter what language he spoke was a near-zero, the argument seemed to hit home with my fellow 15-year-olds.

A longer piece in the Guardian goes into more detail and raises the point that even if lots of people speak English when we want to buy from them, us speaking their languages when we want to sell to them is more effective. As the article says (and the errors in the German are theirs not mine!):

It is true, says Kelly, that many Germans speak English – “but they are proud of their own language and are pleased if potential partners can make a gesture towards it. And it’s easier to buy things in English than to sell them.” He quotes Willy Brandt: “If I’m selling I’m happy to speak to you in English. But if I’m buying dann müssen sie deutsche sprechen.” The impact on British exports is obvious.

What none of these articles pick up on is that language is a serious industry in its own right for the EU in general and for the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Commission estimated the size of the language industry at €8.4b in 2008, set to grow to €16.5b in 2015. For the UK the report estimated that

the total turnover of the translation and interpretation market … is therefore estimated between €290m and €434m

There is money to be made here and that money will not be going to UK citizens if we neglect our language learning. A study by Cardiff Business School suggests that the UK economy is losing business because of our poor language skills – estimated in 2007 by the same professor to be €9b.

That’s all before we get into issues of EU staffing, mentioned in the Guardian article. The FCO are focusing on this, in the wake of Hague’s speech about it (which I can’t find a link to at the moment). The UK is certainly under-represented in the EU institutions. Now, of course, the Commission is charged to have the European interest at its core, and so there is no question of ploughing a national furrow when you are there. But undoubtedly where you come from informs your approach. When I joined, I assumed there would be this wonderful melding of cultures into a European administrative culture. Wrong – the European Commission is lots of people with very different ways of doing things getting along together and making it work. So having UK people in the mix is important. But if you don’t speak languages, you won’t get in. Even if the entry requirements as they currently stand discriminate slightly against native English, French and German speakers*, the sad fact is that the biggest barrier to entry for most Brits is the language requirement. The other problem is that if anyone learns languages in the UK, they tend to be linguists, whereas what the Commission also needs are agronomists and vets and engineers and computer technicians who speak languages. So I applaud the UK government for trying to encourage more applications, and I have already told them that I and this office will do what we can to help, but at the same time, this language issue needs to be tackled in the broader sense if they are to succeed.

* the entry exams have to be sat in EN, FR or DE, and not in your first language. So if you are an English speaker with fluent Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, you will not be able to take the exam (or at least not have any decent chance of passing). This is true for French and German speakers too, but as most of them will probably have English as at least one of their languages, it is less obviously a problem.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: