Why is the government ripping into language learning?

It's culturally insulting that only classical and modern language GCSEs count towards Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate.

In the middle of a recession, this country is about to decimate a rich resource. Locked in some of our poorest communities, this resource is completely sustainable and promises to boost export growth. Over one million young people in state schools already speak part of another language at home – Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese and Urdu to name but a few. But instead of investing in this talent, the government is about to rip up qualifications in some twenty languages.

Yesterday I went to see how this was affecting Archbishop Lanfranc school, situated in a make shift part of Croydon somewhere between suburbia and an industrial site. Walk in off the busy main road and you're in a concrete playground with paint chipping off the walls and cracked windows. Despite the chronic underinvestment, the atmosphere is great. Kids of every colour walk and laugh in navy uniforms, and red geraniums wave between the cracks. Talent is allowed to flourish when it is brought into the light.

Nisha Chauhan, 14, is one of the students here. Her Dad is Kenyan Asian, but they don’t speak Gujarati at home because her Mum was born and bred in Luton and doesn’t speak a word. Her grandparents still speak it, but they’re getting old and Nisha is the only granddaughter out of nine that will carry it on. Without her language classes after school on Thursdays, it would quickly fade away.

“My grandparents are really proud,” she tells me with striking earnesty and big brown eyes, “Being able to learn, read and write in your own language is something you should be proud of. It’s an extra qualification that takes you somewhere. It expands what you know.”

The problem is that Nisha might be the last generation to access these classes. Cuts to the OCR exam board mean that they are axing the qualification in many community languages, known as the Asset programme. This programme was set up to provide a recognised qualification below GCSE and build skills. It created an incentive for schools to teach more lanugages and for community and Saturday schools to spring up after class. Now twenty out of twenty five examinations are facing the axe including Hindi, Cantonese and Tamil.

Without Asset, it will be impossible to get any qualifications in a host of languages including Swedish, Yoruba and Somali. For others there will still be a GCSE option, but many young people are not at a high enough standard to be entered, so talent will be left undeveloped.

Kausar Ali, co-ordinator of community languages at Archbishop Lanfranc school who has been teaching Urdu for over twenty years, says learning will cease, teachers will be sacked, investment in teaching resources will be wasted and languages may go silent.

“If the language exam isn’t there, we can’t keep the teachers. I don’t know yet how many we’d lose. Teaching and learning will go down… and as a school we’ll lose the UCAS points… the community are very angry.”

Nor does this make economic sense. The government’s 2010 report into sustainable growth stressed the need to increase international trade, investment and exports to get us back to growth. Increasingly we’re told that we need to look beyond Europe to make that happen. A recent CBI report has said that if we’re serious about winning back our competitive edge, we desperately need to invest in multilingualism. At present just 4 per cent of our A level entries are in languages.

It’s complacent to think that the rest of the world will learn English and talk to us on our terms. We have to reach out to other markets, and anyone who has seen the vibrant Turkish and Asian shops spring up on our high streets knows that our ethnic minority communities can help us achieve that. Some 113,000 children already speak Punjabi in this country, 85,000 speak Bengali and 15,000 speak Yoruba according to the department for education. But we have to get those languages accredited and up to business standard to be able to make use of them. Otherwise they risk slipping into the shadows.

Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate recognises the importance of languages, but only classical and modern language GCSEs count towards the new qualification. This isn’t just culturally insulting, it’s economically senseless. What kind of message does it send to say a language is not worth accrediting? Why should Latin count and Cantonese not? Why should we learn Italian, when so many more speak Hindi and India is growing so much faster? In essence we’re saying some languages are worthless, when in truth they’re all gold dust.

Teaching these languages also helps social inclusion, because it lets ethnic minority children know that they have something special to offer this country. Praneetha Yogeswaran, 15, moved over to the UK just a few years ago with her mother when her Dad passed away. She was under-confident and spoke little English, but her weekly Tamil classes after school spurred her on. The assembly certificates and the extra exam points made her feel it was worth sticking to her wider studies.

“My friends talk about it and say it’s a good thing and that it will offer me better chances with jobs,” says Praneetha, “They say I’m lucky.”

It’s a given that all British students should learn English as a priority. But Praneetha’s brother’s extra qualification in Tamil helped get him the UCAS points he needed to go to university. Now Praneetha hopes her Tamil exam will help fulfill her dream of studying accountancy at university. This isn’t about ethnic communities becoming more introverted; it’s about plugging them into the mainstream. Sadly her little sister might not have that chance. At eight-years-old she loves her Tamil classes, but she won’t be able to get the recognised reward for them.

Back in class Ms Ali looks worried. Over 40 students in her school are taking Asset languages every year, along with several thousand more across the UK. Although OCA say they will announce their final decision later this month, there is no formal consultation going on. Several thousand people have already signed a petition run by the campaigning group Speak to the Future to stop the cuts, and now students have started back after the summer, it will be easier to co-ordinate protests. If this decision isn’t reversed, we will be tearing up a truly British asset.

The 25 languages offered by OCR in the Asset scheme are: Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Cornish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba

Only French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin will stay.

Language learning under the cosh. Photograph, Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Show Hide image

This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle