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. 

Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.
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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman