Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speaks out for language learning
On the occasion of an award ceremony for German teachers, bestselling espionage writer John le Carré highlighted the role that language learning plays in fostering an appreciation of clear language – and truth. Teachers help “to balance the European argument, to make it decent, to keep it civilised”.
His argument can be extended to language learning and teaching more generally. Learning a foreign language entails a commitment to engaging with communication at the most fundamental level. It also requires moving out of your personal comfort zone to engage with another world view, a different culture, a new way of doing things.
Learning another language is quite different from learning your own. We learn our mother tongue or tongues without being conscious of doing so. When we learn a foreign language, we inevitably use our own language as the point of reference, and we reflect on difference all the time. This generates interest and fascination, and it opens our eyes to linguistic and cultural diversity. Unfamiliar beauty of sound and imaginative language can generate an additional sense of adventure, as John le Carré comments.
Encountering a new language in this way brings valuable benefits. For decades, it has been assumed in UK language teaching that the only way to learn a language successfully is by ‘total immersion’ in the target language. This degrades your native language to a handicap, and suggests there is no place for translation because it brings only ‘interference’. At best, this removes an important pathway into the new language. At worst, it drains confidence and convinces learners that they are ‘rubbish at languages’ – as most young people now define their native linguistic talent. Moreover, it fails to foster the curiosity that linguistic difference engenders, and ignores the huge potential language learning offers for simultaneously enhancing literacy, articulacy and precision in your native language.
The new GCSE and A level syllabuses have brought back some translation, and this is to be welcomed. But there still needs to be far greater appreciation of the benefits entailed in involving the multilingual riches that are offered by pupils in most UK classrooms. In teaching UK learners, one of the key challenges is to value the language skills that are already there and build confidence on that basis, connecting languages across the differences. This can help to dispel the linguaphobia that has been encouraged by the Brexit debate, and foster mutual respect for linguistic difference.
The European project was and is a uniquely ambitious initiative to bridge cultural differences and create a forum where different nations and cultures can speak to each other both in their own languages and in the languages of the other members. Translators and interpreters build bridges, and encouragement of language learning in member countries fosters a commitment to diversity by offering opportunities to step out of linguistic and cultural comfort zones. There is room here for lingua francas as well as linguistic diversity.
The Commonwealth project by contrast grew out of colonialism, which has traditionally entailed the use of English as the sole lingua franca. But the countries of the Commonwealth have never been linguistically homogeneous any more than they have been, or are, culturally homogeneous. And linguistic diversity will not disappear with globalisation any more than cultural diversity will disappear. While we need lingua francas, we also need linguistic diversity, because cultures value the languages and dialects through which they can best express their unique identities.
The UK today includes an immensely rich array of languages, dialects and accents – and that will remain the case irrespective of Brexit. Welsh has become an official language of the UK, and there has been a resurgence of other ‘local’ languages, with the status of Irish Gaelic currently being a political issue in Northern Ireland. In other parts of the UK, regional variations are similarly valued as central to local identity. Meanwhile many waves of immigration throughout our history from other European countries, from the Commonwealth and from other parts of the globe have established vibrant linguistic legacies. These languages are not just spoken in private homes and little silos. Ours is a country in which languages and variations mix and mingle in every school, workplace and shopping centre. It’s time we embraced that diversity and saw it as an asset, nurturing it with properly supported language teaching and language exchange – to ensure that the UK debate, the European debate and the global debate can be decent and civilised, and benefit from our diversity.
Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads the first strand: The Creative power of metaphor.
Image by German Embassy London (John le Carré giving his thrilling keynote speech) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons