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Foreign Language Teaching

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

6.57 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): There are many ways in which one can put people into categories. I want to divide the population at large into two categories: polyglots and monoglots. For the information of the House, a monoglot is someone who uses or speaks only one language. I wish to see a severe reduction in the number of monoglots. That is something of a problem for native English speakers, in particular, because they confidently expect that the rest of the world will eventually also speak English, and that it is merely a question of waiting long enough. Of course, there is lots of evidence to support them in their view.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Das stimmt.

Ms Stuart: I would love to respond to the hon. Gentleman's heckling, but as I understand that one is not permitted to speak any language other than English in this Chamber, I shall refrain.

The question for many native English speakers is why they should bother to learn another language. I should like to suggest several reasons that go beyond the obvious advantage of being able to speak more confidently when abroad on holiday. In the long term, it is safe to assume that eventually English will expand further and further as a lingua franca, but it would be a mistake for native English speakers to assume that it will be the kind of English that we speak now. I found it fascinating, when working on the Convention on the Future of Europe over the past 18 months, to learn that many people from eastern European countries speak extraordinarily confident English without having been near any English-speaking country. However, there is a development of using English words differently from a native English speaker. The classic example of that is the German word for mobile phone—"handy". Germans refer to their "handies" and think it odd when native English speakers ask, "What is a handy?"

The second reason for learning foreign languages in schools is that pupils will understand their own language much better.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

Ms Stuart: Studying a foreign language can help to deepen the understanding of one's own language. Different languages express different ways of thinking. I shall always remember a meeting that I attended in the Treasury when an official said to me, "It would be helpful if you would not be so terribly German on this occasion."

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Lady said that different languages express different ways of thinking. I spent two years living in Germany, trying to understand and master German. Can she explain why the Germans have 16 different ways of saying "the"?

Ms Stuart: Tempted as I am, I do not wish to bore the House into submission by going through the various

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cases, genders and the way in which adjectives are declined. However, there are reasons for that. It comes back to the Treasury officials asking me not to be so German about a matter. I said that I would try but that they would have to explain what they meant. They said that German thinking was like thinking in Lego bricks—putting together an argument by sequential reasoning. Once A is agreed, B logically falls and C cannot be reopened. They said that the British way was to put the whole case on the table and perhaps say, "Well, maybe we shouldn't do this at all", to which the very German response would be, "But we've agreed about 1, 2, 3 and 4, and we cannot therefore go back to the beginning."

At the same time, some things that can be expressed in English cannot be expressed in almost any other language. I defy anyone to translate T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" into another language and preserve its beauty and emotions. It is a case of horses for courses. Some languages lend themselves better to some ways of expressing specific matters. We need to teach our children such appreciation of different ways of reasoning and also—another problem for the English—to teach them grammar. English is not based on rigid rules, and many children grow up with no understanding of grammar and therefore find it difficult to acquire other languages.

The debate about apostrophe "s" occurs frequently in the media. Whenever we produce newsletters, as I am sure the Minister knows from his office, we check the word "its" and ensure that the use of the apostrophe is appropriate. Few people understand that. In my office, people tend to turn to the assorted foreigners and say, "You'd better proof-read this because you understand the rule." I was fascinated by an exchange about the apostrophe on Radio 4. Someone asked, "What's the point of it?" Another listener wrote in to say, "I'd like people to consider one sentence: 'We ran out of food, so we ate the dogs.'" The presence or absence of an apostrophe in the word "dogs" severely changes the meaning. The apostrophe serves a purpose, and it is essential that we understand it.

We have a problem with foreign language teaching. I recall meeting a young man who had recently passed his GCSE German with a grade A and subsequently moved to a second school. He said, "It's fascinating how much easier it is once you've worked out the rules." I asked what he meant by rules and discovered that he became familiar with the concept of an irregular verb only in the first year of his A-level studies. It made me curious to know how that child could have got a GCSE grade A without knowing that there were irregular verbs. I hope that the school was so skilful that it simply managed not to reveal what irregular verbs were. However, the child was not aware of the rules.

That is the second point—the importance of culture—but there is a third, which is very pragmatic, so it should appeal to the British, if nothing else does: if we do not use foreign languages in our business dealings, we lose business. Advantage West Midlands, which is an extremely fine organisation, did a language skills capacity audit in 2001. The west midlands exports about 8 per cent. of the UK's exports, while 60 per cent. of the region's exports go to the European Union. The survey of companies showed that 70 per cent. of those that responded used at least one foreign language in business, while nearly 50 per cent. used two.

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The most used languages, according to the sample, were French, German, Spanish and Italian. The survey also found rising demand for Spanish, but when it asked companies to look back at the past three years to see whether they had encountered any language barriers to their business dealings, 50 per cent. said yes while some 16 per cent. said that they had encountered cultural barriers in their international trading.

What I found most depressing about the survey was the fact that while 8 per cent. of companies said in 1996 that they had lost business owing to lack of language or cultural skills, that figure had grown to more than 20 per cent. five years later. One in five acknowledged that their lack of language skills lost them business. I understand that the British Chambers of Commerce has spent the past three months conducting a similar survey among its members. Although it is not able to publish the precise findings until next week, one finding—one of the central conclusions—will be clear, which is the importance of language teaching for business. Companies will need to deal with language strategy themselves. I want to return to the Government's responsibilities in terms of providing that pool of skilled people.

The Government's document "14–19: Opportunity and Excellence" states an extremely laudable aim, which is to have more flexibility and choice in students' programmes. I know that compulsion, by and large, is not the measure that most induces young people to take up a subject, but, with foreign languages having been removed from the core curriculum, I wonder whether it is the right way forward.

I talked to Lordswood school for girls in my constituency, which still enters every pupil for at least one modern language at GCSE. The language department is extremely successful, and the recent Ofsted report stated that it had very good teachers with many outstanding features. The school is also taking part in the British Airways awards, which show the importance of languages in business, and it will enter some 33 pupils. I congratulate Lordswood, its teachers and its pupils, but I wonder whether we are helping such schools by removing the compulsory element from the curriculum.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is much to be learned from the example in Wales, which shows that young people who are educated from an early age in the English and Welsh languages have a greater aptitude later for learning a third language—a foreign language?

Ms Stuart: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. All research seems to show that the time to start teaching foreign languages is before children start school—when they are three, four or five. That is when those skills develop, which is why I can see a reason for removing the compulsory element from 14 to 19-year-olds, provided that we do something at an earlier stage. What matters is not at what stage children start learning languages, but that they acquire that skill, which they can build on.

I want to refer briefly to the National Centre for Languages publication "Language Trends 2003". It says that half of schools remain convinced that languages should remain compulsory. It also says—again, this is worrying—that

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It goes on to conclude that

The real problem is that we may be in danger of destroying an infrastructure on which we can build. If language learning is compulsory, and the structure exists, we can attach other courses to it.

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