NS Essay - Whose culture are we talking about?

In our attitudes both to immigrants and to foreign languages in schools, we take it for granted that

New Labour doesn't exactly have a language policy, but it has an attitude to language, and it is an attitude that worries me. It emerges in two recent proposals. One would remove foreign languages from the list of core national curriculum subjects and allow children to opt out of foreign language study from the age of 14; this was floated in a green paper but, according to a new survey, 30 per cent of secondary schools are already acting upon it. The other proposal, in a white paper on immigration and nationality, suggests that applicants for British citizenship should be required to demonstrate proficiency in English.

Although these measures were probably drafted without reference to one another, both depend on - and, if enacted, will reinforce - the same assumption: that Britain is, and may just as well remain, a monoglot society. Our inability to speak other people's languages is treated as natural and inevitable; others' inability to speak ours is considered a good enough reason to deny them full membership of our imagined national community.

The proposal in the white paper was welcomed by commentators across the political spectrum. A leader in the Daily Telegraph declared that "multilingualism is plain silly". Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian about what might reasonably be demanded of a British citizen, defined "a working knowledge of English" as one of the "minimal cultural norms", second only to willingness to obey the law. That British citizens must speak English has been presented as a self-evident truth, a modest requirement to which no reasonable person could object.

Yet there are several reasons to object. First, it does not acknowledge the nature of the demand that language learning makes on individuals. Learning a foreign language is not like memorising facts about parliamentary democracy or British history: just applying oneself to the task does not guarantee success. For adults, who have already lost their innate language-learning abilities, success depends not only on their motivation but also on their age, their educational background, the quantity and quality of instruction and how much contact they have with speakers of the language outside the classroom. Some immigrants, especially those who are older, poorer, less educated and more isolated, will find it impossible to pass a test, even though they may be anxious for their children to learn English.

But there is an even more fundamental objection to the idea that speaking English should be regarded as a "minimal cultural norm". Whose culture are we talking about? The notion that being British means speaking English is an ideological fiction: Britain is not and never has been a monoglot, anglophone society.

For one thing, the nations that comprise Britain are not all historically English speaking. Although centuries of intolerance have led to the attrition of the indigenous Celtic languages, there are still communities in which they are spoken, and in which some older people have only a limited command of English. Then there are all the non-indigenous languages that have been spoken here in the past thousand years, from Norse and French to Yiddish and Chinese: immigration did not begin in the 1950s. We have had monarchs who never learned English and aristocrats who used it only to address the peasantry. Anyone who suggests that multilingualism is alien to our traditions has quite simply got their facts wrong. Today, as in the past, there are areas in many British cities where people can lead productive lives without making extensive use of English, and survive without knowing any at all.

Some of the foreign-born citizens whose contribution to British life is routinely praised by politicians - entrepreneurs, small businesspeople, philanthropists and community elders - have remained largely monolingual in their first languages. This has not stopped them abiding by the law, paying taxes to the Treasury and bringing up bilingual British children. Why deny citizenship to newcomers with the same virtues? Indeed, how could this be anything but race discrimination? Elderly Welsh-speakers will not have to pass an English test before being issued with a UK passport. Nor, one imagines, will white native English-speakers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

Apologists claim that language requirements are about helping newcomers to fit in. But if we look around the world, they often have more to do with keeping people out. Some countries introduce compulsory teaching and/or testing in a climate of rising feeling against immigrants, and thereby hope to deter less desirable entrants, reduce overall numbers and make the government look tough. In other cases, the real targets are settled minority groups rather than new immigrants. In former Soviet-bloc countries, for example, the introduction of tests in the new national languages was motivated by popular resentment towards ethnic Russians. When governments decide to make an issue of language, it is a good bet that language is not the real issue - it is a surrogate for other, less respectable concerns.

The idea that we need a common language to hold the nation together is a hangover from 19th-century European nationalism - hardly the most sensible foundation for language policy in the age of globalisation. Few nation-states have ever conformed to the "one-nation-one-language" ideal, but today the world's linguistic and cultural diversity is reproduced in major cities on every continent. We increasingly see ourselves as members of communities larger than the nation-state, and of networks that are not territorial at all. Yet the government's thinking seems stuck in a nationalist rut.

While the Home Office redefines the criteria for British citizenship, the Department for Education redefines languages other than English as peripheral if not irrelevant to children's education. It proposes that pupils should have an "entitlement" to study a foreign language from the age of seven, but they will only be required to do so between the ages of 11 and 14. Since many schools do not have the resources to provide much beyond what the state requires, and since many pupils will seize the opportunity to opt out of foreign languages, the result may be to reduce most children's exposure to a scant three years of study. The measure also threatens to restrict the already narrow range of languages on offer. With fewer pupils studying languages, schools will not employ as many language teachers: the green paper's "entitlement" could boil down to "any language you like, as long as it's French".

Lurking behind this proposal, I suspect, is a particular view of globalisation, according to which English is not just a global language but the global language - the only one that anybody really needs to know. This is a commonplace view but also a complacent one.

English owes its current global pre-eminence to the superpower status of an English-speaking country; but the country in question is the US, not Britain, and our position in the world is quite different. For us, some of the most important transnational networks and institutions are those of Europe, a multilingual region in which there is no single dominant nation or culture. English does function as a lingua franca in Europe, but it is not the only language of wider communication, nor is it the language of daily life for most Europeans.

Moreover, we cannot count on English remaining unchallenged as a language of commerce. Global capitalism is loyal to profit, not to language: as important new markets emerge (the obvious example is China), businesses will have incentives to diversify linguistically. Demographic changes in capitalism's own heartland will also favour linguistic diversification. In the global age, a national market cannot be assumed to be a monolingual one. This is already evident in the US, where in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, native English-speakers of European descent either have ceased or will soon cease to constitute a majority of the population. Although English probably will not be superseded by a single rival, it may well see its market share reduced over time, as more of the world's business is transacted in other significant languages. (Although significance is not only a matter of size, it is instructive to look at the numbers: Mandarin is spoken by 15 per cent of the world's population, around 900 million people, while Spanish, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese and Russian have more than 150 million speakers each. English comes between Mandarin and Spanish.)

In any case, the dominance of English does not necessarily benefit countries whose inhabitants speak only English. New technology makes distance irrelevant and businesses can exploit the ubiquity of English speakers. Companies based in Australia, Britain and the United States increasingly outsource their customer services to call-centres in, for example, India and Malaysia: their English is as good as ours, and much cheaper. British companies are also losing out to rivals elsewhere in Europe that can do business in several languages, including English.

In future, the most valuable language skill will be flexibility: it is not speaking a particular language that matters, so much as being able to adapt your linguistic repertoire to continually changing demands. Yet the green paper's approach seems likely to restrict most young people's opportunities not just to become proficient in particular languages like Spanish and German, but to learn how to learn other languages.

The reasons to regret this go beyond economics. Young people growing up in the global era will need to negotiate increased diversity. It's a truism that any serious encounter with another language is also an encounter with another culture, a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is subtly different from your own. Less obviously, perhaps, encountering another culture through its language can prompt a deeper understanding of your own culture. Learning a language is doubtless not the only way to achieve this kind of awareness, but downgrading the status of foreign languages in an already rather parochial national curriculum will not make it any easier to prepare young people for a world in which all of us will need to cross cultural borders.

What's also dispiriting about the green paper is its defeatism. Most British people, it implies, are just too bad at learning languages to justify the time and effort spent teaching them in schools. Perhaps we need to be reminded that learning foreign languages, like multilingualism, is part of our heritage. From the Middle Ages until the end of the 18th century, it was taken for granted that an educated Englishman would acquire fluency in languages other than his own - particularly French, the language of polite conversation. There was even a time, around 500 years ago, when the abilities of English travellers to speak foreign languages were remarked on, rather as we remark today on the abilities of people from the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Then, English was merely the obscure language of part of a small island on the western fringe of civilisation. Now it has global currency - but its power-base is no longer on this small island. If Britain is to stay connected in the 21st century, we may need to relearn the lesson that English on its own is not enough.

We don't take the same defeatist attitude in sport - another area where our reputation has been eclipsed by the achievements of other nations. Faced with our manifest inability to produce, say, world-class tennis players or a world-beating football team, the authorities do not say: "OK, we give up." They say: "OK, let's try something different."

In that spirit, perhaps the government should consider having a proper, joined-up language policy. But any worthwhile policy would have to begin with a conscious effort to move beyond the monoglot mindset. It would acknowledge that historically, today and in future, Britain is a multilingual country. It would not treat any one language as an indispensable badge of loyalty to the nation; and it certainly would not make citizens' rights conditional on passing an English test. It would, however, recognise the importance of enabling all Britain's citizens - native and foreign-born alike - to develop linguistic flexibility. It would ensure that language teaching was properly resourced, investing in high-quality English language teaching for non-anglophone immigrants, and in initiatives to raise achievements in foreign language learning. Such a policy would represent the best of Britain's traditions; whereas the one now emerging by default shows us at our insular, philistine worst.

Deborah Cameron is professor of languages at the Institute of Education, University of London