Paul McNamee: Languages can cut through the class gap

There was a strange mixture of support and sniffiness when Boris Johnson spoke French during his meeting with Emmanuel Macron. But with learning languages, our level of comprehension grows, you understand a nation and people more

I am hugely impressed by people who can speak more than one language. If you’re up at three or more, I’m at your feet. I would have kept Roy Hodgson as England’s football manager for as long as he wanted purely because he once gave a post-match press conference moving easily from English to Italian to Swedish. He also has some Norwegian and Finnish.

There was a strange mixture of support and sniffiness when Boris Johnson spoke French last week during his meeting with Emmanuel Macron. On the one side, his supporters said, well he can’t be a non-European bigot because he speaks French. On the other, the argument was, well he still is. Neither stack up. And both miss the point.

Given the hugely expensive private education that Boris Johnson received, I’d be furious if he didn’t have a working ability in at least one modern language. His showiness in bugling out Latin phrases does not come under this. The Latin thing is an affectation.

The problem with learning languages in Britain is that they are increasingly becoming a class issue. State schools are not teaching them in the way they did even 10 years ago. School pupil numbers taking modern languages are collapsing faster than the pound against the euro.

French and German learning has dropped by almost half in English state schools since 2013. In Scotland, 41 per cent of schools that responded to a BBC survey just a few months ago said they’d dropped at least one foreign language course. The picture is similar in Northern Ireland. 

You could point to a number of reasons.

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Michael Gove has a lot to answer for. When Education Secretary he made a mad dash to reform teaching, based on ideology and his tastes rather than evidence. It may have energised parts of the system, but when the dust settled, there were unintended consequences. Among these, there was little space for growth in languages.

And contemporary pupils may ask, what’s the point? Google Translate sorts things in a second. Other translation apps are becoming increasingly sophisticated. And doesn’t everybody speak English anyway!

The counter arguments are hard to stack up, but here goes. Things are just better in their own language. Your level of comprehension grows. You understand a nation and people more if you can read their writing in their own language. When you communicate with them in their language, people appreciate it. The door swings open, bringing understanding rather than suspicion.

The problem with learning languages in Britain is that they are increasingly becoming a class issue

And there’s research that shows learning a foreign language helps delay the onset of dementia. It’s a tool against Alzheimer’s

It’s not enough for Boris Johnson to show he can communicate beyond English. Good for him. He needs to help schools help their pupils do the same. Let’s make language learning a new jewel in the education system. Put the funds in, encourage learning. Add that to the cultural capital that cuts through the class system.

As Britain looks to the world like we’re cutting ourselves off, encouraging foreign language-learning and use would send a whole other message.

Allez!

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. Contact him at paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com