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I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on having invited the noble Lord, Lord Coe, to speak to our All-Party Group on the 2012 Olympics and the challenge of languages there. We have something like 300 foreign languages being spoken within London. Let us take advantage of them, and ensure that they help and contribute to improving the skills of our young people with a view to recognising that there is a direct link between jobs and language acquisition.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, I, too congratulate my noble friend Lady Coussins on securing this debate, particularly with its emphasis on the link between languages and the economy. That is not to minimise the importance of languages and culture, but today we are focused on languages and the economy.
Sadly, we have had a period of decline in this country in the past decade. Perhaps the underlying reason is a failure to appreciate that language learning is not some luxury consumption good but a fundamental requirement in a knowledge economy, more urgently needed than it used to be in a globalising world.
I have to declare a couple of interests, and noble Lords will see why: first, as chair of the Nuffield Foundation and, secondly, as a past president of the British Academy and the National Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences.
In 1998 the Nuffield Foundation established an expert group, jointly chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd, to report on language learning and its importance to the economy and to working life; this is not a new topic. Its 2000 report, Languages: the Next Generation, was generally quite optimistic. A language GCSE had been successfully introduced as a universal requirement, although students were rather often exempted from it, particularly in certain schools in certain regions. It remained to improve the pedagogy to make more language learning more fun, and to recognise that this was an economically vital skill. The central message of the report remains important:
"Capability in other languages-a much broader range than hitherto and in greater depth-is crucially important for a flourishing UK. The scale of what needs to be done has become ever more striking ... At the moment, by any reliable measure we are doing badly. We talk about communication but don't always communicate. There is enthusiasm for languages but it is patchy. Educational provision is fragmented, achievement poorly measured, continuity not very evident".
The most fundamental finding was that the UK workforce suffered from a chronic shortage of people at all levels with usable language skills. Companies
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The point of the Nuffield languages inquiry was to set out how we might do just that. Its recommendations were practical and to some extent still familiar: a national strategy, an earlier start, putting an end to the situation at that time where nine out of 10 gave up language study at age 16, providing a broader sixth-form education and improving teacher supply and accreditation.
No one who read that report could have anticipated that the Government would soon abolish the hard-won GCSE language requirement in 2003. In effect, they chose not to do things better but to do less. I suspect that this has been the single most striking piece of educational vandalism-I am sorry to say that-inflicted on the young people of this country by a Government who have claimed to be, and indeed have been, keen on education. It was a major own goal.
The one recommendation acted on was the introduction of primary language learning, inaccurately spoken of from the start as an "entitlement". It has hitherto been no such thing; rather, it has been a patchwork of variable provision-sometimes enthusiasm on the part of amateurs, sometimes genuine teaching and progression. What exactly will children in England, who will soon become entitled to language learning in primary school, be entitled to? What plans do the Government have for the lost generation who did not do more than three years of language learning?
Primary language teaching did not address the problem of transition to secondary, which remains unresolved, while beyond secondary level, as other noble Lords have said, the picture is one of dramatic decline. Lord Dearing's 2007 languages review reported that between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of pupils taking a language in the 14-16 age group in maintained schools fell from around 80 per cent to 50 per cent-well below 50 per cent for boys, and declining since then. The damage runs through the supply chain. Fewer school pupils lead on to fewer language students, while there has been closure of the honours degrees in many universities and a decline in available language teachers. The supply of linguistically competent people, who could export as well as import, was reduced.
Language learning is like learning maths: it is cumulative, there are wrong answers, and high marks may be a bit harder to get. We all know that making maths optional at GCSE would be catastrophic for the skills of those entering the labour market, and many of us believe passionately that the practice of giving up maths after GCSE is also damaging to a vast range of careers, far beyond the STEM subjects. The practice of giving up languages at age 14 and then further at 16 is also damaging to the skills base, yet we not merely permit but incentivise pupils to do so-and we incentivise schools to encourage that by making the number of GCSE passes a performance indicator for schools.
The British Academy returned to these topics in 2008, after warnings from senior academics in a number of fields that British-educated researchers were no longer adequately prepared for research in many disciplines, or for international collaboration. That loss of competitiveness parallels what has happened in many other lines of work. In its report Language Matters, published in June, the British Academy noted that globalisation is leading to increased,
At present, UK universities are major and successful players, whose recruitment of overseas students represents a major economic benefit to our economy. That is being eroded by loss of competitiveness, and this is one of its sources.
At present university departments are, like the City of London, addressing the skills shortage by buying in the skills that they need from those educated abroad, not by seeking UK researchers and academics to upskill. I believe that universities could do more, and could permit students who arrive without language competence to take an intercalated year to work abroad learning a foreign language. It would be cheap, and many students would benefit from it in many ways. However, while universities are judged on the speed with which they get students from matriculation to graduation, little will change.
What do the Government plan to do to enable and encourage universities to address the employment needs of their students by encouraging more study abroad? Can the Minister also explain what the Government are doing to encourage and promote language competence among civil servants and beyond the FCO? None of this is new, and all of it is remediable. The remedies are not even particularly expensive. If we really mean what we say about building a high-skill knowledge economy, language learning is one competence that we need to support. All that we need is a will to change, some leadership and some co-ordination.
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, it is a great honour to follow my noble friend Lady O'Neill, a distinguished academic who has made a powerful speech with which I entirely agree. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Coussins on introducing this subject; she is a distinguished linguist and, as has already been pointed out, the founder of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which she leads very successfully.
Fifty-four years of my life have been involved with Latin America, including six years living in different countries. I did not read languages at Cambridge; in fact, I was an engineering student and arrived in Latin America unprepared. It was a steep and quick learning curve, and I quickly discovered that to understand the people properly you need to speak their language, including all the nuances that are often lost in translation. I can therefore also endorse what my noble friend has said about the value of this in doing business. It proved very beneficial in my case as time went on and
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Some people have made jokes about translation. I am reminded of the Irishman who was asked how he would translate "mañana". He said, "I'm afraid we have no word for that sense of urgency". As has already been said, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, but it is not an international language. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, the largest international language is English, but it is often a second language. My research reveals that Spanish is the second most-spoken language as a mother tongue, followed at a great distance by Portuguese. The whole continent of Latin America speaks Spanish, except Brazil and the three Guyanas. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, Portugal and several African ex-colonies.
Interestingly, some 20 to 25 per cent of the population of the USA speak Spanish as a first language. This dates back to the time when what are now California, New Mexico and Texas were all part of Mexico. They were lost to the US following the Mexican-American war from 1845 to 1847. Given the large and growing percentage of the USA, including Florida, that speaks Spanish, it would seem that la Reconquista is well in hand.
I am glad to hear that Spanish and Portuguese are established subjects in the curriculum in British schools and universities, although not nearly sufficiently or adequately so, as several speakers have said. I am sure that the noble Lord who is to reply will deal with this. I hope that he will, although I have no specific questions for him on this subject.
In the United Kingdom, Canning House is the institution in London which represents and focuses on Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula and where they meet each other. In this context, I declare a considerable interest, since it is an institution with which I have been involved in an honorary capacity for many years. Canning House does not currently run Spanish courses; this is done very adequately by the Institute of Cervantes in London. It holds classes in Brazilian Portuguese at four levels, from beginners to advanced. It also has a very popular annual essay competition in Spanish and Portuguese. These activities at Canning House are extremely valuable and make a useful contribution.
I realise that Latin America is an area of the world that is not of much interest to the Government at present; I hope that will be reversed in the future, but it is the subject of another debate, on trade. I still hold the view that Spanish and Portuguese are very valuable languages. I am glad to have been involved in the debate and I thank my noble friend Lady Coussins for bringing this subject to our attention.
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness from these Benches. I would not be here if the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, had not kindly written to me to ask me to substitute for someone more capable. All my life, I have been known as a Snopake speaker. You get invited rather late-maybe two weeks before-to speak at a dinner. Then you see the Snopake on the menu and you scratch it to see
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That is where I will begin today. Yesterday I said to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, "There was a debate on education not long ago when one of the right reverend Prelates said that he had majored in dead languages. What is a dead language?". I thought that it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, partly because, like the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, we supported a mission in Portsmouth. I was also a naval rating in Portsmouth-a Pompey rating. Indeed, it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. The right reverend Prelate said that "dead" languages are not necessarily dead. Beside me I have a list of 110 dead languages. The distinction between dead and extinct languages is important and very real. An extinct language is one that is never used, let alone spoken.
The question, therefore, is how many languages there are in the world. My advisers in the Library-occasionally I can beat them-tell me, from the records, that there are 7,000 languages in the world. Many are extinct. Many, of course, are used for academic purposes only. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, quoted the figure that approximately 2 billion to 3 billion people are learning English, speaking English or thinking of learning it. Therefore, English is a very powerful language. For me, as a Scot, to say that is extremely worrying. We are, of course, descended from the Norse. As your Lordships will know well, the Norse word "mö"-with a diaeresis-means "begotten of". I am a McEacharn-begotten of the horse and a sword maker.
I find that, in general, the ladies in my family seem to marry Latin lovers. Sometimes they might have been called sleeping dictionaries. In my arguments with my Italian indirect cousins, I managed to prove conclusively in Florence about 15 years ago that Machiavelli was Scottish-the son of the devil. What I am trying to say is that learning languages should be fun. It should not be a struggle. First you need a map of the world, such as I give to my grandchildren. On it, there are dots and rivers-the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Brahmaputra and all the rivers of the world. It is down those rivers-and, of course, across the seas-that knowledge goes first. If you are to try to encourage people to learn, you have to make it fun.
I have had many dealings with Albania. The Albanians are highly intelligent people. As your Lordships will know, they have 50 per cent more letters in their alphabet than anyone else. I have argued with them that if you have to have a lot of letters you are not very intelligent. In Albania I have also found that many people speak Mandarin and Chinese, because from 1957 onwards the Chinese were there and the Albanians learnt those languages. I also found this in Sudan and the rest of Africa. The Chinese provided cultural support, building colleges and conference centres. As people get interested in trade, so their culture expands.
All the native American languages were effectively replaced by colonial languages, such as Portuguese, English, French and Spanish. This has happened in
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Let me explain this with another bit of religion. Not so long ago I became involved with another bishop: I was asked whether I would talk about languages to the students of Bishop Thomas Grant School. I thought that talking to schools might be part of the outreach project. About 15 per cent of the 1,000 pupils at the school do not speak English at home. So you suddenly say, "Wait a moment, maybe we need to teach a modern language called English in our own country". I found myself in a room with a Jeremy Paxman-like character, with a microphone thrust at me, being videoed while discussing the importance of languages. I had to speak in German and French, although they wanted me to speak in Italian as well, which was not quite so good. Three of the people involved were quite brilliant. I asked them to write to me about the discussion. Laura wrote a nice letter saying that she was from the Congo and spoke Congolese and French.
The point that I am coming to is that we should make modern languages something that people enjoy doing in school because the lateral thinking that comes with them is extremely important. I have traded around the world and found that the misunderstandings are very great. I used to work in eastern Europe; the UK and the Ukraine are next door to each other in the alphabet, which is how I got involved in the Ukraine. Albania is the original name for Scotland-"Alba", or the white people. The Norsemen went across the North Sea. I think that Greenland Norse died out in the 16th century, but the Norsemen also went down through the Black Sea and came right along the Mediterranean-probably they were Jason and the Argonauts-and arrived up in Ireland. When they arrived there, the Irish Scots, as they were called, said, "You can stay for a bit. We don't have any women to give you, but we'll lend you some", and they went across to the Kingdom of Albanactus in the north, which was called Albania. When you start to talk to people about this, they get maps out and say, "Where did this word come from? Where did this language come from?". I used to get mixed up between etymology and entomology, and anything else ending in "ology", until I realised that the suffix was probably Greek. In the confusion of my own mind, I realised that languages are extremely important. However, they should not be called modern languages; they are a form of learning, a form of general knowledge. When I watch "University Challenge", I get embarrassed if I cannot get more than one in three answers.
What about two countries separated by a common language, such as the United States and ourselves? What about incidents that have occurred in the Middle
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I cannot resist going back to a point that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, about Mr Bush, who asked why the French do not have a word for "entrepreneur". If you translate it correctly-I am known as an entrepreneur in France-it means an undertaker; someone who undertakes something, like an Unternehmer in Germany. But if you translate the word back into English, it means something slightly different; it means dead things. If you translate the English "undertaker" into French, you get "croque-mort"-an old crock, perhaps like your Lordships' House. There are two types of old crock. Undertakers would bite the toe of the deceased to see whether the deceased was dead, as many people wanted their veins cut to make sure that they were not buried alive. They would bite the toe and say "croque-monsieur" if it was a madame and "croque-madame" if it was not. This is the fun of a language. Everybody in France who is self-employed is an entrepreneur. We need a bit of fun in language teaching.
Like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on her speech, on initiating the debate and on chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which over the past year and a half has given us a number of extremely interesting meetings with professional linguists and educators, all of whom have given us an insight into some of the valuable work being done to propagate a better understanding of the benefits which a study of languages, both classical and modern, bring to British society and to Britain's place in the global economy.
Before I speak about modern languages, I should perhaps declare an interest in that I come from a family consisting very largely of clergymen, classical schoolmasters and other teachers. I admit to being a strong proponent of the teaching of two of the dead languages in the list of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, Latin and Greek, first as an intellectual exercise giving access to some of the great literature of the ancient world; secondly, as an invaluable tool towards the learning of Romance languages; thirdly-as I discovered when the Foreign Office sent me to Lebanon in the 1950s to learn Arabic-towards the learning of other unrelated, but difficult, languages; and, fourthly, as a help for English speakers towards an understanding of our own language, spelling and grammar, quite apart from understanding the large number of words of classical origin still in daily use by our doctors, lawyers, scientists, astronomers, botanists and ornithologists, to name but a few.
But it is not classical languages that we are debating today. I should perhaps declare one further interest in that my late aunt was the only lecturer in the Igbo
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What I want to concentrate on in this brief intervention is to counter the widely believed fallacy that because English-or should I say American?-is now the lingua franca in much of today's world, we have no need to study, or use, other modern languages. This lazy and complacent misperception, that a knowledge of English is enough for all transactions, economic, commercial, financial, cultural, intellectual and even diplomatic, may, to some extent, be a legacy of colonial arrogance, but it ignores the fact that, however well our foreign friends speak and understand our language, we cannot hope properly to understand them, or to do effective business with them, if we do not have at least a grounding in their languages; a point well illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond. As the world economy becomes more and more dominated by Asia, and as the influence of the United States declines, business in the Far East is going to rely increasingly on an understanding of China and Japan, and an ability to speak, and understand, their languages.
As a retired diplomat, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the highest standards of language training still apply not only to our Diplomatic Service but to the public service as a whole. With the inauguration this week of the External Action Service in the European Union, our success in gaining influential positions in the European public service will increasingly require fluency in other European languages, at least to the very high standard of English enjoyed by our French, German and other European colleagues.
I believe that by ignoring the importance of modern languages we are dangerously underskilling our young people in this country, and that we risk excluding them from the increasingly global enterprise. While large numbers of overseas students study in Britain, our students are finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage of such schemes as Erasmus, or to undertake part of their course in another country in Europe. In a situation where it is no longer compulsory for a potential student to take even one foreign language at GCSE level, and where the proportion of British students taking a modern language in their GCSEs has fallen from about three-quarters before 2004 to less than half now, our young will face serious disadvantages in nearly every marketplace in the world.
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