By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
There was a very unfunny TV sitcom in the late 1970s called Mind Your Language. It was set in a language school and its basic thrust, as I vaguely recall, was that foreigners are inherently funny and fitting targets for comedy (as the photo of the cast above suggests), particularly as they struggle with the English language. As a nation we Brits are pretty good at laughing at foreigners of course (some would say we’re quite good at laughing at ourselves too), never more so perhaps than in that other 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers – but that was a work of genius and so is exempt from criticism. I’m talking about unfunny mockery here.
Is there any correlation, I wonder, between our mild xenophobia (not so mild in the case of the 1980s Sun newspaper) as expressed in programmes like Mind Your Language and our generally poor language accomplishments? Britain must be one of the most monoglot nations on the planet, in spite of the influx of immigrants and foreign workers. I’ve sometimes been made to feel as if having a passing acquaintance with the language spoken by people who live 20 miles across the Channel is something to be embarrassed about. Pardon my French!
And I sense that few of our leading politicians, with the exception of Nick Clegg, have any sort of command of a second European language. Not David Cameron I’m sure, who is temperamentally anti-European I sense, or Ed Miliband, or our dogged foreign secretary William Hague. Clegg is a notable exception, but then he’s a Liberal Democrat and therefore pro-European and of course his lawyer wife is Spanish. His progressive views (and broken electoral pledges) make him an easy target for the popular press but, to his credit, he seems happy to play the role of political punchbag. Viewers gave the UKIP leader Nigel Farage the edge over Clegg in their recent televised debates: Farage, the plain-spoken pub bore (who, being an MEP, I suspect must speak more than one European language but doesn’t let on), bested Clegg the Europhile and slightly dry technocrat.
Where do these failings – if failings they are – begin? The Guardian recently published an article pointing out that “the number of students taking a language degree is at the lowest level in a decade”, citing a 22% (22!) drop in numbers between the academic years 2010–11 and 2012–13. The figures are taken from a report put out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, whose author Janet Ilieva writes: “A worrying fact is that the data has seen a fall in applications to foreign modern languages in 2013–14”. John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, is quoted as saying “While it’s good to see more young British people going into higher education, it’s disappointing that language courses aren’t benefiting from this upward trend, with yet another dramatic decline in students taking languages”. Disappointing indeed.
I took soundings from modern language academics among TLS contributors (all of whom, by chance, happen to be teaching at Oxford) and was told that for Italian, Oxford and Cambridge are bucking the nationwide trend of falling numbers (and department closures). Where Spanish is concerned, meanwhile, according to Ben Bollig, Fellow and Tutor in Spanish at St Catherine’s College, “We have no shortage of good applicant. Indeed there are many applicants who I’m sure are very good and potentially very worthy of a place, but we can’t admit them all, sadly”. He continues: “Given that a number of universities have reduced their provision or closed down language departments, it’s probably there that we see the overall fall in numbers. Teaching modern languages is expensive in comparison to other arts and humanities subjects, in that you have to teach the language (normally in quite small groups) as well as the ‘content’. But there are some encouraging signs elsewhere. Warwick opened a new Spanish department and Reading is doing so for 2015. I hear Spanish is doing very well at my previous employer, Leeds. Oxford is fortunate to be well resourced and through the collegiate system and the tutorial model able to offer precisely the sort of teaching that mod langs students require.”
Meanwhile Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of German at Oxford, writes that “applications in Modern Languages are healthy, though (at least in the case of German) this requires a lot of dedicated outreach work”. But Patrick McGuinness, Fellow of St Anne’s, where he lectures in French, is rather less sanguine. He tells me that “from an Oxford perspective we spent about ten years thinking we were ok because our applications numbers held up. But probably we aren't in the long run – unless we accept more and more students from private schools the way classics have had to do . . . . The rot set in when they took literature out of GCSE and A level and concentrated on language skills unmoored from cultural and grammatical knowledge. The result is that people who used to do languages because they loved literature turned away from it (old A level combinations used to be English, history plus language or English plus two languages) and those who did it are not noticeably better at language than before. Also important to remember that teachers who like literature used to teach languages and that has also changed.”
Back in the day when I read French and German at King’s College London, the course was roughly – as I recall – 60 per cent literature and 40 per cent language (any more language would have been frankly intolerable). I regarded it as being like doing English but with a foreign language (or two) thrown in. Particularly where German was concerned it meant that I read texts that I would never otherwise have come across (see above) while assiduously avoiding others (anything medieval). I’m grateful to have had that exposure: it was good to get a sizeable amount of Thomas Mann’s work under my belt, for example. Those Reclam editions I’ve pictured above, with their very yellow covers and tiny font size, cost 60p (one of them still has a price label on the back) from Grant & Cutler near the Strand (where it once was), or Dillon’s in Gower Street. I recall one of my peers telling me immediately after Finals that he was taking his whole collection down to the bookshop to sell them! I can’t imagine he would have got very much for them.
Meanwhile, my elder daughter is learning both French and Spanish at her Secondary academy, and loving it – which is great. So far, however, there has not been a literary text in sight, but that could change next year. I hope so.