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The politics of language

December 12, 2007

Hello again,

I have been listening to the debates about language teaching in UK state education. Recently foreign languages became optional for study after the age of 14. I found this a perverse move ...

...given that one of the aims of EU education policy is to encourage all children to learn at least two other languages than their own. And clearly in the globalised job market language skills would be an obvious asset, opening up new opportunities and mobility for young people.

The move has been somewhat mitigated by a proposal to include language learning in primary education but why start and finish early? If multilingualism is a life tool, then it needs to be fostered throughout and beyond formal education. But language is always bound up with politics.

The British Government is keen on policies that penalise those who do not speak English in the UK. I admit freely that being able to speak English is vital to full integration into the community but should we bludgeon people in this way? And why did the USA find it necessary to legislate as recently as 2003 and to make English the official language? What is it about other languages having prominence that scares us?

Part of it of course is that old colonial arrogance that believes English is the only language and that we don’t need to speak other languages: let foreigners learn ours. And with English as the lingua franca in so many international domains, the arrogance is compounded.

Attitudes to language are complex and emotional. I quote below some points of view garnered from an EU-funded project, Language Futures:

"the multiplicity of languages is an evil, and a source of conflict. It should be overcome by a universal language, or at least a global auxiliary language"

"linguistic standardisation in modernity is inhuman and evil, like Newspeak in Orwell's 1984"

"diversity of languages is a value in itself, similar to biodiversity"

"each language has value in itself, and it should be preserved, perhaps like a work of art"

"languages are essential to peoples and nations. Language is related to identity, culture, and memory. Language erosion is cultural genocide"

"one specific language is superior to all others because it expresses truth, or value, or the Word of God. It should become universal, perhaps for religious purposes only"

"one specific language is associated with a superior political philosophy, or social system. It should become the universal language"

"a universal or near-universal language, which existed in the past, should be restored."

In reality I believe that languages are organic and they flourish and wither according to the climate that surrounds them. But monolingualism seems to me a poor outlook. Language learning is not necessarily easy and perhaps we often feel discouraged because we see how rarely we can use a second language as proficiently as our mother tongue. But being able to communicate with other people, however rudimentarily, in their own tongue opens up new channels of understanding and respect. And how many international misunderstandings are the result of linguistic confusion? I am not referring to overt mistranslations but to the subtler misunderstandings that arise from failure to understand the underlying premises that govern the way we use language. Think or the way British English uses irony and understatement. When we learn another language we expand our capacity to understand different cultures, different thought processes.

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  1. Mayra Says:

    Language is absolutely the key to opening new channels of communication with other people. Learnign another language can be dificult, but you can gain alot by learnig a differetn language. I always believed that someone that knows two languages is more successful in this world. The UK should enforce the learnign of two languages.

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