Languages: we're learning them in the wrong way

Why communication need no longer be the main focus for language learners.

Britain doesn’t like learning languages. Year on year the numbers taking languages at school have fallen, leading to Britain regularly being placed at the bottom of European surveys into language proficiency. This year alone, German A-Level takers were down by 14.53 per cent and French learners by 9.9 per cent. This is often explained by citing a lack of motivation for learning foreign languages - it’s because we’re learning them in the wrong way.

Most courses designed to teach a language revolve almost exclusively around communication. Learning French, German or Spanish is said to be beneficial solely because it allows you to get by when speaking to French, German or Spanish people. As such, these courses teach set phrases to help the speaker out in common situations. They essentially make sure you buy your bread from the boulangerie and your train tickets from the gare - perfect for those who are holidaying abroad and want a return ticket to the baker’s.

But for anyone who wants to get to grips with a language properly, this approach is ultimately flawed.  Communication is an important part of language learning – of course it is. But in a world where English is the lingua franca, it should no longer be Britain’s main motive for learning another tongue.

Language is, after all, much more than a communicative tool. French is considered beautiful and important not because it allows you to speak to French people about your pets and hair colour, but rather because of its wealth of literature, its role as the language of diplomacy throughout history, even the way it sounds and flows. If the only thing you learn to say is “J’ai deux frères et j’aime bien jouer au ping pong”, these benefits become severely limited. All language learning has to start somewhere, and this simple vocabulary is more than likely to be sufficient for a long weekend in France.

Teaching primary pupils with the same approach as teaching holidaymakers, however, is bizarre. Yet the syllabus up to GCSE puts all the emphasis on translating banal English phrases into equally banal French, German or Spanish ones. It borders on encouraging pupils to translate word for word and pupils, quite understandably, are bored by this approach.

We need to shift our focus. At the moment, the reason to learn a language is ostensibly to translate your own ideas and experiences. Up to GCSE pupils are encouraged to talk about their own lives, but only by translating English words. This is not the way to spark enthusiasm for foreign cultures, and will usually be greeted with the response “but everyone already speaks English”.  In a way, it’s very Anglo-centric – the focus is on how we can say English things in a different language.

Instead, we ought to learn the joys and peculiarities of another culture, rather than ironing them out. The Germans, for example, use the excellent “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” – an instrument designed to help you eat your boiled egg and which literally translates as “Egg-shell-breaking-point-causer” as it causes the egg shell to split in two at its breaking point. Not only is this a great word, but it also highlights the highly logical structure of German, a logic that extends beyond German as a language to other areas of German life and culture. It gives an insight into the German way of thinking.

Similarly, the stereotypical French aversion to English and American intrusion on their culture is demonstrated by the Acadamie Française’s recent decision to ban “le hashtag” in favour of “mot-dièse”. It’s these sorts of peculiarities that we miss out on when simply translate from English as opposed to aiming to learn from other languages.

The merit of languages should be stressed in a more holistic fashion. Whether through literature, film or art, language teaching should focus also on the culture that surrounds a language, on the way that foreign languages differ to English and how this allows for subtle and nuanced distinctions in meaning. To learn a language should be to immerse yourself in a different world and way of life, to view a situation through a completely new lens. Not only will this make learning languages more appealing, it also means that language learners gain a much better understanding of what’s around them, encouraging them to focus on more than the English-speaking world.

Although the ability to communicate is still important, it should be seen as one constituent of language learning. If translating pleasantries into simple language is a learner’s first impression of a language and culture, they are likely to be left disappointed and frustrated. If they are greeted with a new way of understanding, they are likely to be enthused and motivated to continue it further. 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser