Mange tout, Rodney, mange tout: The British ineptitude with foreign languages is comically portrayed by David Jason's Del Boy
It is one of the paradoxes of our times that the more we are exhorted to be outward-looking, the less we equip our people to be so. We are told not to be Little Englanders, to embrace the rest of the world, their cultures and their customs, with fervour, and, in particular, to assume a European identity above a national one. Why, then, have we chosen this time to make the teaching of foreign languages in our schools an increasingly rare practice, clearing them out of the syllabus to make room for such soul-enhancing subjects as media studies?
One reason, of course, is that a foreign language is not vocational. Unless one intends to become a teacher of the language — and there is shrinking demand for them — or to go to work in a non-Anglophone country, then such study is deemed pointless. Another reason is that it does require a certain mental discipline to learn a new language. Even if one regards grammar as largely dispensable — which has long been the case, it seems, in the teaching of English itself — the student must still grasp some vocabulary, and a rough idea of what order the words go in to be comprehensible. In the non-challenging world of the GCSE, where derisorily low percentages are required to secure a pass, a qualification in the subject would not remotely lead to being able to speak it.
The A-level course is even less demanding, and with depressing consequences for the student. One can pass, at the highest grade, an A-level in a European modern language without reading a word of the literature in that language, or embracing any other part of the related culture. A couple of years ago a sweet girl from a redbrick university came to do work experience for me. She was reading modern languages, and told me she was at the redbrick because she had failed to get into Oxford. I feared another story of rampant anti-state school bigotry by some stuffy Oxbridge don, but I was wrong. The girl had been sent, fully prepared as she thought, from her Midlands comprehensive to her interviews. The first interview was about her second foreign language, German, but was conducted in English. She was asked, early on, what her favourite German literature was. She replied that she hadn't read any. It was not part of the A-level syllabus and her gormless teachers had not thought to tell her she might like to study some in her spare time, just to be able to make some conversation about it. Leaving that interview in a state of abysmal morale, she went to her French interview, which was conducted in French. She had not been told to expect this, and the 30 minutes a month of oral practice her school provided her with was unequal to the task. It became even more so when her interviewer asked her, in French, what her favourite works of French literature were: she hadn't been advised to read any of those either.