Stop the War on Languages
Please sign this petition if you agree that the British government should bring its 'War on Languages' to an end.
A Response to the ‘War on Languages’
A Letter to the Prime Minister of Great Britain
The Disaffected Educationalists
A Letter to Mr. David Cameron
Prime Minister of Great Britain
Dear Mr. Cameron,
We address ourselves to you in the time-honoured tradition of democratic appeal to bring to your attention the slow but sure decline of democracy in our once lauded British Higher Education system, and to envisage publicly the cultural wasteland of this Britain that chooses monolingualism, cultural isolation and turbo-capitalism over genuine social and intercultural engagement. Imagine if you will a restaurant scenario somewhere in the heart of middle England, a surge in tourism, and a British establishment keen to impress its customers with a range of continental options. Unfortunately, the care that goes into the various dishes is not replicated in the menus, which offer Tagliatelli Arabiate (error-strewn ‘angry pasta’), Filete de Pechos (a strangely ‘breasted filet’), Œil-de-Bœuf (inviting you to eat a ‘bull’s eye window’), and a German-styled Worstel Plate (a linguistic concoction perhaps originating from ‘sausage platter’, but who knows …). Such errors are hardly restricted to our part of the English-speaking world, but the examples do point to a wider malaise symptomatic of the cultural health of the entire Anglophone world. We wish, however, to point to more serious issues, arising from our personal and professional experiences of working as academics here in the UK. Let’s face it, the UK is becoming home to one of the most inward-looking and ethnocentric cultural environments that has ever existed. And — as recent press coverage shows — we are not alone in our concerns.
Is it conceivable, Mr. Cameron, that soon we will all be living on an island where nobody can communicate with the neighbouring countries in their native languages, since we persist in the deluded belief that all their citizens can speak our English language anyway? Must we accept that Anglophone Britain will settle for ever more wilful and spectacular cultural ignorance and delusions of supremacy, given that since the end of the Second World War ignorance of everything foreign has only intensified? Are we to believe that soon only those school and university subjects that deliver immediate dividends for finance and commerce, in other words those that contribute blatantly to the national GDP, will be tolerated? Is this the kind of society you want for your legacy.
If it is not, then you and your government urgently need to address the harmful effects of officially-sanctioned monolingualism, cultural isolationism and the commercial colonisation of intellectual life.
It is overwhelmingly clear that, as a result of lack of government support for languages in our secondary schools, we will soon become the only nation in Europe where a majority of universities do not have a Department of Languages. The numbers of British students able to study languages, foreign literatures and cultures, linguistics, translation and interpreting — let alone make any progress in the use and understanding of their own language — will plummet. The impending closure of the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at the University of Salford is the latest step towards just such a looming monolingual future. Yet language associations such as the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and institutions such as the British Academy and European Commission, repeatedly stress the importance of languages to sustaining the cultural health and social cohesion of a transnational Britain. The same organizations also point to the alarming dearth of competent linguists on this island. The British Academy’s 2013 report, entitled The State of the Nation, confirmed, for instance, that there is a persistent lack of native English-speaking interpreters and translators in international organizations such as the UN and the European Parliament, and that the British justice system has proved incapable of providing sufficient numbers of — let alone competent — public service interpreters to cope with the requirements of a multicultural Britain. This is serious, and our government must take note.
Language skills are needed at all levels in the workforce, and not simply by an internationally mobile élite. As you are no doubt well aware, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills indicates that in 2009 and 2011 respectively 17% and 27% of vacancies in administrative and clerical roles went unfilled owing to shortages of foreign language skills. Whilst such gaps tantalisingly point to potential employment opportunities for your recession-ridden population, those citizens from less advantaged backgrounds — those most at risk of unemployment — are even less likely to be given the opportunity to offer themselves as potential candidates for such positions. And the reason? Whilst languages remain an amply funded part of the public school curriculum and in those universities belonging to the exclusive Russell Group, it is state-sponsored schools and post-1992 universities that are most likely to have lost funding for their modern languages provision. Can you condone such a reality? Let us be clear here: Closures and funding cuts disadvantage the most vulnerable sections of our society, while at the same time increasing the risk that language learning becomes the preserve of an intellectual and above all economic élite. You belong to this élite, Mr. Cameron, but, as you are no doubt aware, the people have charged you with the most powerful and most honourable position in the land, and as such they have elected you with a mandate to govern the entire British population. Your duty, therefore, is to the body of citizens as a whole, not simply to those that are most likely to vote for the party from which your prime ministerial person happens to hail.
Cultural isolationism — and a way out
In spite of this bleak situation, there are very many of us who still believe that another kind of society is possible. Yet an alternative can only be achieved through a sustained commitment to combat our cultural illiteracy, with the development of multilingualism in young people as one of its major objectives. It is a commonplace that an early encounter with a foreign language encourages the development of the entire person, fostering engagement, empathy and intercultural awareness. The ‘UKIP mentality’ however is essentially about abhorrence of all cultures other than a very narrow, inward-looking, in short ‘economic’ version of our own culture. Narrow-minded views such as these, which are also perpetuated by the UK media, fail to see that interaction with foreigners, immigrant British citizens, foreign cultures and the major vehicles of those cultures — their languages — is part of the very life-blood of our own society. Even the most cursory glance at the history of the English language will overwhelmingly confirm this fact. To disengage is quite simply to turn the UK into a cultural and linguistic wasteland.
A command of at least one foreign language, on the other hand, greatly enriches us as individuals and in turn the society we inhabit. The project Community Languages in Higher Education: Towards Realising the Potential, for instance, has demonstrated that language learning greatly enhances intercultural understanding, tolerance and mutual respect for difference. But most important of all, and as shown by a study in 2001, language learning must not be seen merely as a cognitive process divorced from its sociocultural surroundings, since it fosters creativity to an extent that greatly helps individuals ‘to avoid stereotypical schemes in thinking’. Language learners are thus much more likely to open themselves up to a wider variety of people and alternative ways of life; in short, they will learn to embrace difference, new cultural experiences and above all respect for what humanists call ‘the other’. But, Mr. Cameron, would such people be ideal ‘consumers’? And is this the ultimate, the only, important question?
Colonisation of intellectual life by commerce
The rapidly depleting landscape of academic subjects available in our universities is, as you are surely aware, a direct result of the ever-increasing centralisation and homogenisation of decision making processes in Higher Education. We, as lecturers, already find ourselves in the curious situation in which decisions to shed academic subjects can be made by small coteries of high-ranking managers — most of whom are not themselves educationalists — who simply hand down their decisions to the academic staff. This engenders an environment, indeed a ‘culture’ in which individual initiative is increasingly sacrificed, with less and less room for academic manoeuvre, whether in teaching or research. To put it in other, more realistic terms, ‘education’ is fast turning into the kind of machinery that operates the economy. You will no doubt agree, Mr. Cameron, that seen from the perspective of intercultural respect, awareness and sharing, this process is utterly misguided and the machine must be forced to stop!
For some years now, university managers have couched their communications in the economic categories of supply and demand, which by itself constitutes a fair measure of the cultural and intellectual decline of our universities. Put differently, the managerial top-floor now tends to converse in the language of professional football, with its endless references to ‘players’, ‘teams’ and ‘leagues’, suggesting that education itself has become nothing more than a ‘product’. And the fact that it is accepted as such by a majority of its ‘users’ — from lecturers and students to administrators — is equally troubling. As someone who states his concern for the ‘well-being’ of his citizens, surely the democratic provision of a high-quality multilingual, intellectual and cultural education for a multilingual and multicultural population should be central to considering the health of the social body?
The linguistic decline of our universities is a real reflection of the ‘commodification’ of political and cultural practices, which had become firmly entrenched within education by the 1980s. And with the monoglot mainstream progressively silencing the potential vibrancy and dynamism of a plurality of voices, critics such as the linguist Norman Fairclough began to highlight the dangers of an increasing pseudo-democratisation, commodification and technologisation of language use in the political and cultural domains. And now, in fact, we are harvesting the fruit of the unquestioning adoption of such a culture of ‘commodity exchange’, which is being imposed on academic subjects with less than calculable and predictable outcomes, and which is of course couched in the terminology of a presumed value for the economy.
But, as someone who has had access to the hallowed corridors of some of this country’s most esteemed educational institutions, surely you of all people, Mr. Cameron, must agree that education must not be put SOLELY at the service of the economy! After all, a truly transnational, a truly democratic economy requires linguistically capable, flexible, and well-educated individuals. If British politics is to grant equality of opportunity to its citizens, it needs to provide those citizens with increased, rather than reduced, access to language learning, and concern itself with developing a holistic educational curriculum across the educational cycle; this, in turn, will equip citizens with the means to develop the qualities and abilities that are needed for genuine engagement with difference. In sum, languages not only give this country’s learners access to a more enriched intellectual, cultural and social life, they also give our entire society the opportunity to reach beyond a narrow and culturally philistine outlook on the world. If foreign language learning empowers and fulfils us as individuals, it also ensures social cohesion and, most importantly, provides hope for a more just distribution of economic opportunity. In the end, however, hope by itself, sadly, is not a very promising substitute for our impending struggle — individually, nationally and globally — against the ‘war on languages’ initiated by the large majority of policy-shaping Anglophone institutions and departments.
Mr. Cameron, in this war we ask for your and your government’s support in restoring languages to the central place they should occupy in schools, colleges and universities — for the long-term benefit of local, national and global communities, the cultural well-being of individuals, and the accurate transmission of knowledge and understanding.
Signed: The Disaffected Educationalists
British Academy (2013) ‘The State of the Nation’, http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/State_of_the_Nation_2013.cfm
Bekhtereva, N., Dan’ko, S., Starchenko, M., Pakhomov, S. & S. Medvedev (2001) ‘Study of the Brain Organization of Creativity: III. Brain Activation Assessed by the Local Cerebral Blood Flow and EEG’, Human Physiology 27(4), 390–397.
Community Languages in Higher Education, https://www.routesintolanguages.ac.uk/community/index.html
Fairclough, Norman (1992) Discourse and Social Change, Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press.
Russell Group, http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/home/
UK Commission for Employment and Skills, http://nessdata.ukces.org.uk/ness/KMS/News.aspx
University Council of Modern Languages, http://www.ucml.ac.uk/