Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in 2013 that British schools should forget French, which has for years been the most popular language to teach in the UK, and turn their attentions towards Mandarin. Cameron’s argument was that China will be the world’s largest economy, making it logical for young Britons to learn their language rather than concentrating on French which, although it has long been established as the UK’s language of choice in schools, cannot compete with China on the economic power scale.
As usual, there are many things I do not agree with in Cameron’s comments; not least of all the idea that French has become passé. France is our neighbour after all, and continues to have a leading voice within the EU as well as globally. I would also like to ask how Cameron, considering the abysmally low standard of French reached by 95% of our population on leaving the educational system, proposes to go about introducing Mandarin, a far more complicated language to learn and teach.
But what I most object to are comments such as “how can Cameron propose we learn a language just to increase the country’s business opportunities? What about the importance of learning for personal gain and appreciation of another language and culture?” Here is where I must speak up. To those (especially British readers) who hold these opinions, have you never stopped to question why it is that you can speak English almost anywhere you go on holiday? Have you made the naïve assumption that all over Europe at least, young adults are desperately trying to improve their English because they like it or because they feel embarrassed when they don’t understand holidaymakers shouting at them that they want another beer? Now wouldn’t that be a charming thought.
The reality is of course, rather different. My students pay thousands of pounds a year, not to mention giving up many hours of their own time in order to learn English purely out of necessity. They may like the language, they may not, this point is completely irrelevant. What does matter is that without it, they will probably never get a decent job. They may, for example, have just finished a degree to become a science teacher with a real talent for their subject. But they can forget finding a job unless they can prove they possess a high level of English, although they may never need to use it. Millions of Euros are spent in Spain alone on improving English every year to provide their society with the linguistic abilities needed for the country to do business internationally.
As someone who has learnt another language purely out of personal interest, I admit that there is something a little sad about all this. And to the language lovers reading this, you will agree that those who hold a genuine interest and enthusiasm for their language of choice undeniably learn quicker than those who take on the task for purely practical reasons. But we must abstain from criticising the motives behind language learning and instead, applaud these countries for their effort.