English language usage and politicians’ prowess | Letters

Terence McSweeney explains why English is often used internationally, Steve Callaghan says politicians need to invest in modern language teaching across all sectors, Philip Stewart recalls a teacher exchange scheme shunned by Thatcher, Anke Neibig explains why fewer students are taking up languages, and Paul Tattam on how the media can help

I too have worked in many countries, in my case as an engineer. Jan Wiczkowski (Letters, 12 April) seems to want to ignore the historical reasons for the disproportionate weight of the English language internationally. They are many. For instance, a Polish company drawing up a contract with a Chinese customer will see that contract employ English law. The international language of aviation, and of the oil industry, is English.

Countries with heavily dialected languages (for example, in Flanders and Switzerland) will see the natives use English when they can’t understand people from just 30 miles away. I saw this when friends from Antwerp had to use English to order beer in a cafe in Breda! The colossal reach of the BBC is another reason why English is the default language around the world, as is the fact of the vast bulk of engineering having originated in the UK.

The second language of any scientist or engineer will almost always be English. Yes, language teaching in British schools is a disgrace. We should teach French, German and Spanish in our schools and require evidence of reasonable fluency in them as an indispensable component of an acceptable level of education. But when you get told by a security guard, as happened to me when trying to use French at the shipyard in La Ciotat, to “speak English. I like to practise my English”, it is easy to see why native English speakers don’t see the point of trying to acquire any great facility with any other language.

Wiczkowski claims he hears Europeans using English “often far more cogently and concisely than English (he should, of course, have said British) politicians have done in their own tongue”, but that is simply because the case being put by those British politicians is such an absurd and farcical one that even Shakespearian mastery of the language would struggle to make it sound cogent.
Terence McSweeney

• The picture painted by Jan Wiczkowski of politicians’ linguistic incompetence may not be as bleak as he suggests. Last week in Germany I saw three political discussion shows on mainstream TV in which British politicians (Ben Bradshaw, Labour, Greg Hands, Conservative, and Philippa Whitford, SNP) acquitted themselves honourably in German in fast-moving political debates. British views were also represented fluently and with good humour by Sir Peter Torry, British ambassador to Berlin 2003-07, and Prof Anthony Glees.

Our ire should perhaps be reserved for the education policies in this country that do not value the learning of foreign languages, unlike our European neighbours, whose children are required to learn a language up to at least 16, often to 18. Whatever the outcome of the current political crisis, we shall still need to talk to our European neighbours. Until our politicians recognise the contribution foreign language skills make to trade, business and mutual respect and understanding, and then invest in modern language teaching across all sectors, we shall remain a largely insular and monoglot country exiled on the edge of Europe.
Steve Callaghan
Teacher of German and French (recently retired), Guildford, Surrey

• About time too (Modern languages: schools turn to foreign governments for teachers, 9 April)! In the 1980s, the EEC (as it then was) offered us an imaginative scheme for exchanges of teachers between the UK and the continent. Margaret Thatcher turned it down, haughtily saying that we were perfectly capable of managing our own education. A whole generation lost out as a consequence. It could even have influenced the referendum.
Philip Stewart

• As a teacher of foreign languages, I watch with great concern the downward trend in the take-up of languages at GCSE and A-level. To enthuse students for languages, learning them must feel like a meaningful activity. One factor that has contributed to the sad decline of language learning is not usually discussed – namely our ridiculously over-the-top health and safety rules in schools, which make any school visit, particularly one involving taking students on exchange programmes abroad, a nightmare to organise.

Those of my students old enough to have participated in an exchange report of the massive, and in some cases life-changing, impact it has had. As is the case in so many schools in the country, my management team, in their infinite wisdom, have now decided to axe our highly successful exchange programme with Germany, which had been running for 24 years; they’d rather be safe than sorry – just what we need in our current political situation. It is the students who miss out, of course.

I was under the impression that our job as teachers was to widen our students’ horizons, but I evidently got that wrong. The government is called upon to counteract our current climate of fear: we need a solid legal framework that encourages school exchange programmes.
Anke Neibig
Newcastle upon Tyne

• Jan Wiczkowski is dead right about English insularity, arrogance and its politicians’ failure to make their arguments in any other language than English. The media could help to change attitudes by taking a lead. How about a one-page press digest in the original language from El País, Libération etc every day in the main paper or G2? Dobry pomysł?
Paul Tattam
Chinley, Derbyshire

• The first letter above was amended on 18 April 2019 to remove an unintended suggestion that Breda, rather than Antwerp, is in Belgium.


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