Wednesday, 23 July 2014
The point at which I fell in love with the French language is a difficult one to pin down. Undoubtedly I was influenced by the trips my parents encouraged and the role of interpreter which they bestowed on me at just 12 years old. I was terrified of my French teacher but recently took my family to see her home town of Aix-les-Bains because I surely recognise her impact on my life. I went to Oxford Poly to study for a French degree, determined not to "do" literature but within a year I had negotiated more literary study and still have a passion for the works of Mauriac, Camus, Baudelaire, Voltaire and Prévert. (read, discussed and analysed in both my languages). I created a drama project during my PGCE around the theatre of the absurd and the works of Ionesco. Working as an assistante during the 2nd year of my first degree was no doubt a turning point though - I began to understand that language learning is not just intellectually challenging, it is fundamentally transformative - it changes the way you understand others and yourself through interaction. I continue my language learning journey through interaction largely but not exclusively online using #cmc computer-mediated communication.
My community (language teachers/experts in a variety of guises and contexts) are struggling with the realisation that young people are increasingly not choosing to continue language study for single honours degrees, numbers on such courses have been in freefall. It is very upsetting for all of us to see that the qualification we so treasure is not featuring on more wish lists and this has been the subject of countless reports, discussions and soul searching. However, the very opposite trend has been seen in university-wide language study provision so clearly young people do still enjoy the thrill of interaction across cultures. Many of them have done so all their lives but have had little or no state recognition of their linguistic heritage. At a recent school event at my university I asked a group of 14 year olds why they thought languages were useful (expecting the usual list that pointed to employability). This insight came back immediately from a young Sikh - "you can tell someone something without the others knowing what you said". Out of the mouth of babes! Language encodes, linguists decode. That is a human skill, still unmatched by google translate, requiring sophistication, knowledge and skills way beyond those which can begin to be awakened at A level, that is just the beginning. In the UK we have to send a clear message from our community that the journey may be long but it is worthwhile. In schools we need to have the freedom to inspire, in H.E. we must be relevant and move with the times. Most importantly our community must pull together, for the losses we will sustain otherwise are too terrifying to contemplate. Valuing language skills is valuing human diversity in all its richness, and respect for life gives hope in an era of instability and war.
This post was written to relate to UCML's support for A level Content Advisory Board's recommendations.