Previous blog posts by LanguageNow have considered the decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE and A Level and in students electing to read Modern Languages at university. When people refer to Modern Languages in the context of the British education system, they generally tend to mean the four most commonly offered by the national curriculum and those traditionally provided for by university departments: French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Yet in the articles which drip with doom and prophesies Britain’s slide into mono-linguistic shame, there is often a glint of positivity to be found: while the numbers reading German at university, for example, are continuing to decrease, the numbers of those electing to read for a degree (or to take an A Level) in a more ‘exotic’ language such as Russian or even Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Arabic are steadily (if not swiftly) climbing. Even if the traditional choices of German or the Romance languages no longer pique the interest of Britain’s youngsters, the lure of mastering the intricacy of Chinese characters, playing a role in the developing Russian economy or of gleaning a more profound understanding of the simmering tension in the Middle East have begun to seduce fringes of the nation’s linguistically-minded youth.
‘The Chinese economy is the future’, booms the voice of the corporate world; master Arabic and you shall be in demand as the UK anticipates further conflict with the Arab-speaking world, comes the cry from the corridors of power. Careers fairs targeting language graduates laud the benefits of acquiring not only a foreign language but an ‘exotic’ one at that. The intelligence and security services, perhaps unsurprisingly, sniff around for graduates with a command of such tongues.
Yet does such positive discourse surrounding the acquisition of languages such as Chinese and Arabic serve to make teenagers’ judgements hazy when it comes to picking the language to which they are going to devote their studies?
The difficulty for Anglophones of languages such as Chinese and Arabic in comparison with Romance or Germanic languages is due in part to the shared Latin, Germanic and Celtic roots of English and languages such as French, Italian and German. There are many grammatical, lexical and etymological similarities between the languages (all of which descend from the Indo-European family), meaning that when embarking on a course of higher education focusing on one of these languages, one can be fairly sure of achieving a reasonable degree of fluency, provided one puts in the requisite (and indeed significant) effort.
Languages such as Chinese and Arabic share no such similarities with English; they have different alphabets, entirely different grammatical rules and syntactical structures, involve phonetics which the Anglophone will often not ever have been exposed to, and do not have a common etymology with Indo-European languages. This, coupled with the fact that most undergraduates reading for a degree in one of these languages is more likely to study the language ab initio, without the firm grounding of an A Level in the subject, means that it is much less likely that students will graduate with a fluent command of Chinese, for example.
Nonetheless, even if one’s knowledge of the language does not stretch to being able to conduct complex commercial negotiations in the foreign tongue, due to Britain’s reputation as a stubbornly and arrogantly monolingual nation, even a passable command of a notoriously difficult foreign language by an Anglophone can do much to smooth the path to diplomacy or to successful business dealings in the countries in question.