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The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, must be one of the foremost experts on modern languages in this country, let alone in this House, and we appreciate what she said. This is one of those debates that is a bit like, "Aren't good weather and apple pie wonderful?", because it is very easy to agree with everything that has been said. However, in my case that is literally true: I agree with everything that has been said, including the request to the Minister to give some persuasive replies today because millions of sensible people in this country are anxious about the neglect of languages. The only Member who puzzled me a bit, because I could not follow all the comments he made, was the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon. None the less, he made an interesting speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Wright, who is no longer in his place-I hope he returns for the rest of the debate, as is the normal custom-is a famous and distinguished diplomat and was a very distinguished head of the Foreign Office for many years. He reminded me that when I went to Bulgaria as an MP at the end of the 1980s, I was received in Sofia by the British ambassador, who was a very famous, legendary, slightly eccentric character, but a brilliant multilingual person. That was not the subject of our conversation when I went into his extremely sumptuous sitting room. He was on his own, standing in a declamatory pose by the marble fireplace, and shouted at me-he was the kind of person who used to shout and was rather tall-and said, "The House of Commons is full of rotters. Would you like a gin?". I said, "I agree, and yes". Then we went on to languages, and he reeled off a number of European and other languages that he spoke. I shall not mention his name in order not to offend the family because he is long since deceased. The Foreign Office has always been a wonderful example of the proficiency of language learning in this country. It achieves marvellous levels. When visiting other countries, one has the great joy of hearing our diplomats speaking the tongue of the country concerned.
I declare an emotional interest. I am sorry if this sounds smug, because it is true, but I find languages extremely easy to learn. I always have done. I had the good fortune to decide to learn them young, although I do not know why. My parents were poorly educated, primitive local yokels in Somerset. They are long since deceased, so I can say that. I hope it does not sound too unkind. They were delightful people, but they had no connection with languages, so I never know where this comes from. I have no connection with learning
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Modern languages skills are extremely important to this country and have to be tackled by an energetic Government, of whatever hue after the general election. Any Government must look at this again. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, said, we are becoming weaker. The statistic he mentioned and the other statistics mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and other noble Lords about our reckless neglect of foreign languages were chilling. We are fortunate that English has become the world's leading commercial language. Some people say it is the world's leading language, but others come up with other examples, such as Chinese. That has many different dialects, although I gather the script is the same for all of them, and hundreds of millions of people are now able to speak Putonghua, the standard version of Mandarin.
With English as the leading language, the complacency is understandable, but it is even more fatal for us. We are not a strong exporter; our export ratio is good, but our economy is limited and more truncated than that of other European countries, so the total figures do not look too good. Yet so much business is lost by people's inability to speak foreign languages. As we know, that is intrinsically daft. English people, and Americans for that matter, have sometimes foolishly persuaded themselves that it is hard for them to learn languages because of their cultural background. That is not true. There are some brilliant Anglo-Saxon-type Americans who speak Spanish very well because it is such an important and dominant language in the United States, as the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, said. I have met so many British people who can speak foreign languages wonderfully, changing the accents for each language. I have the good fortune to be able to do that. A lot of people can do it. I have a recent example that noble Lords would not expect from a black cab driver in London. You ride in a black cab in London on the terms that the taxi driver talks to you and you occasionally get a chance to say, "Oh, that's interesting", very quickly. The driver said to me, "When I retire in a few years' time, Doris and I are going to Spain. We're looking for an apartment". I said, "Oh, Malaga or Marbella, I suppose". He said, "Certainly not! I don't want to be near those British people who do not speak any Spanish".
There are apparently 800,000 British people who have retired to Spain. Some of them still live in the UK as well, but most of them are out there and retired. They are of various hues. Before we had the extradition agreement, the Metropolitan Police knew some of the names and there were some colourful characters. I am reliably assured by people there that only a tiny proportion speaks any words of Spanish at all. Yet it is one of the world's easiest languages. It was
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That conversation was encouraging to me, particularly as it was a few years after I read in one of the comics that masquerade as tabloid newspapers in Britain that the wife of an MP-I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, because it happened to be a Tory MP, but there is no reason why that has any connection at all-parked her expensive car in a prohibited area in a supermarket car park. She ignored the regulations, the colours and the signposts saying, "Do not park here". When she was interviewed by the tabloid journalist, her words were literally, "Naturally, I didn't speak Spanish, and the stupid policeman didn't speak English". That was her reply and her attitude to silly foreigners who do not speak English.
As a result of the recent football championship in Germany, more Brits saw Germany for the first time. They realised what a great country it is for holidays because the Germans have never promoted it. They noticed with astonishment that it was not just educated intellectuals and leading figures in society who spoke wonderful, incredible English, but ordinary Germans. The police have told me that the policemen on the street who worked with British bobbies when they went over could speak wonderful English, sometime better than the bobbies.
The lesson is now for there to be no more neglect by Governments. We beg the Minister, who has a reputation for being on the ball about business aspirations for British society and is credited with all sorts of other things-he has a distinguished background and career-to tackle this matter and give us some promising answers today in detail about what we will do with this question in the future.
Finally, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is correct to say that this is not just about utilitarian objectives and the reasons why people should be hired for jobs; it is about art and culture and the psychological confidence that language proficiency gives anyone of whatever background. That applies to children starting out in schools. Multilingual children in other European countries can speak one, two, three, four foreign languages because they start early. Why do we not do that here? The Minister can cheer us up today by reassuring us that this dark Gothic era of ignorance about languages is over because the Government are now going to make some interesting announcements in this debate.
Baroness Verma:My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this very important debate today. I, too, speak other languages besides English. Knowing other languages does indeed give you a great sense of learning and attachment to different cultures. It is crucial that we as a nation recognise the value that other countries
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I start by stressing how important education is for our economy, as I think everyone recognises, Following the Leitch report and numerous discussions after that, we know that it will not be okay to go merrily along as we have done. We will need to ensure that all our citizens are engaged in better skilling, higher education and transferable skills if we are to remain internationally competitive. Languages are an important aspect in this development. In an ever growing global market, language becomes a commodity that can be an aid for growth. Let us not make let it a barrier.
How can we expect to attract investment and the relocation of international companies when this is how the country is perceived? As has been mentioned, only 44 per cent of key stage 4 pupils currently take a language at GCSE, compared with 71 per cent in 1997. This is staggering.
The Government have indicated that they are to make modern languages compulsory from the age of seven. Will the Minister enlighten the House as to how such children will manage a new language when four out of 10 children leaving primary education can barely read or write English? Where will the teachers come from to teach these languages, and where in the curriculum will the lesson be placed? Will the Government accept that, by making language compulsory at seven, making languages voluntary at key stage 4 was the wrong decision and they are now having to make a U-turn?
Given the importance of languages in the international economy, is it not now time to reinstate a modern foreign language as a compulsory part of secondary education? The Schools Minister confirmed in a response to a Written Question in the other place in 2007 that nearly 100 secondary schools put fewer than 10 pupils in for language exams in 2007. Furthermore, in 60 schools, not one pupil got a good grade in a language at GCSE-level. Why have the Government not taken more urgent action to address this worrying issue?
Total entries among 16 to 18 year-olds for languages at A-level dropped from 39,554 in 1996 to 29,542 in 2009. Not only is this overall decrease extremely worrying but there is a serious gap between children who are at independent schools and those who are at state schools. A recent survey undertaken by the Association for Language Learning found that 88 per cent of private schools made pupils study languages to GCSE-level, while just 22 per cent of state schools did. It is clear that independent schools recognise that it is in pupils' interests to study languages up to the age of 16. Why will the Government not recognise this as well?
Students entered for GCSE French in the independent sector are five times more likely to get an A* than those from the maintained sector. The same is true for German; 7 per cent of pupils in the maintained sector
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"We cannot be satisfied with such vast disparity in attainment. To close the gap we need a remorseless focus on raising expectations and we need schools to adopt the tried and tested approach to teaching languages".
In addition, the National Union of Teachers has called on the Government to revoke their decision to make the study of foreign languages voluntary. Will the Government now accept that they have got it wrong?
Since 2002-03, there has been a 5 per cent reduction in the number of undergraduates studying languages in England. At the same time, 49 per cent of employers have expressed concern about graduates' foreign language skills. What do the Government intend to do to remedy this situation? This is no small issue. The assistant head of Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School believes that large firms and the finance sector are now going for European employees if they want languages skills. Is the Minister worried that this is the case? According to HEFCE:
In most countries, languages are considered integral rather than optional. A foreign language is an important educational asset in its own right, as well as being a very valuable skill in the modern economy. The drop in the number of pupils taking languages post-14 is a hugely serious problem and a reflection of the educational disadvantage that many of our young children suffer.
Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, on a point of clarification, does the noble Baroness agree, and does the Minister acknowledge, that there was a great deal of confusion when that fatal decision was taken in 2004. My recollection is that the Conservative Party in this House did not oppose the change at that time. One of the basic reasons was that a great deal of credence was given to the argument that the emphasis would switch to primary schools and that this would make the difference. Surely it is very important that we recognise that that simply did not happen because the teachers were not available to make it happen, and that we therefore have to reverse the earlier decision and to continue with the commitment to primary education.
In her opening speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, highlighted the great difficulties facing business. The global economy demands a much more versatile employment base, and it is hard to disagree with a number of points that she raised. I agree completely
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My noble friend Lord Selsdon is always to be congratulated on educating your Lordships. This time he did so on the origins of language. Listening to my noble friend would excite any young person to want to take up another language. I am also very pleased that my noble friend Lord Lyell contributed, as he offered some valuable perspectives to the debate.
All noble Lords across the Chamber have throughout the debate highlighted the need to fill the vacuum created for many young people by their being unable to participate actively in employment. That will involve many people working alongside those who do not have English as their main language and, with more jobs involving travel and time spent in other countries, it is an area that we cannot ignore. In 2007, the then Education Secretary said that we would be embarking on,
The Minister for Trade and Investment (Lord Davies of Abersoch): My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. I did not speak English until I was about seven years of age, so it is very much my second language. I also declare that I am chair of the council of the University of Wales at Bangor.
Before I joined the Government, I worked in a very diverse corporation. It had 75,000 people but only 1,300 were British and I saw the value of understanding other people's cultures, faiths and attitudes. Working in Kuala Lumpur, I was struck, in particular, by the fact that the average number of languages spoken by members of staff was five. That is where the competition is, and the competition is intense.
The UK currently has a huge diversity of languages and cultures. It attracts 340,000 international students from more than 200 countries. Contrary to opinion, the World Bank ranks the UK first in Europe and in the top five globally for ease of doing business. We have been the fourth largest recipient of foreign direct investment flows, and the stock of inward foreign direct investment as a proportion of GDP is the highest of any G7 nation. Therefore, we have a huge range of international companies investing in the UK and they bring with them an enormous number of people and staff, who generally speak more than one language.
English on its own is not enough for us to stay competitive. It may well be the global language or one of the global languages but, as the noble Baroness,
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The world is interconnected: barriers to trade are coming down and the movement of people is facilitated by cheap air travel. The UK is very much part of a global economy and we therefore need to raise our game to compete successfully. We are going to have to adapt to the skills that are required to compete internationally, but we are also going to have to adapt to the changing trade corridors around the world, which means new language skills. Perhaps I may pause here and say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison that we should not scorn the Welsh.
This morning I was speaking at ACAS. There were about 75 heads of human resources present from government and corporates, virtually all of whom- 74 out of the 75-said that modern language skills are hugely important if we are to stay competitive.
Languages increase cultural awareness. As has been said, with the emergence of the economies in Latin America and Asia, the ability of British people to speak Mandarin and Spanish will become increasingly important. My noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds highlighted how important that will become. However, it is also important to reflect on what the CBI has said-that 74 per cent of employers are looking for conversational and related intercultural competences rather than language fluency. We should never forget that 50 per cent of our exports in the UK are to Europe, so European languages are important, too. Our key role in Brussels has also been mentioned.
Although French and German still top the list, a significant proportion of companies require speakers in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. Therefore, the Government are revitalising the key stage 3 curriculum and are no longer restricting schools to teaching the working languages of the EU first, providing secondary schools with greater flexibility to teach world languages. By March 2010, materials for key stage 3 students will be available in French, German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Already one in seven secondary schools teaches Mandarin, and Spanish is the second most taught language after French.
I was struck by a recent report from researchers at University College London, who studied the brains of bilingual people. They found that learning other languages develops the area of the brain that processes information-the grey matter. So, much as exercise builds and tones muscles, the good news is that languages build brain power. However, the bad news is that you need to start young. The same research found that older learners will not be as fluent as those who learn earlier in life.
That finding very much supports the Government's approach of getting children enthused about language at an early age. There is no neglect on this issue in government. It is absolutely critical that we push for early learning, as it is very important to learn languages
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It was mentioned that languages are important for international business. However, they are also important for the Diplomatic Service. Since I have been in government, I have visited 29 countries and I am off to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. I am struck by how important a role our multilingual diplomatic staff play in supporting not just the Foreign Office but business generally. It is absolutely critical that they keep that competitive edge. The FCO invests heavily in language training for staff going overseas, particularly for the more difficult languages. There is also a standing conference for civil servants in particular departments-for example, the Ministry of Defence-and continuous attention is given to this in government. It is important that that stays.
Why do more women than men learn languages? It is true that we need to get more people learning languages, but we have to get a wider group of people learning them. We need to change society's attitude towards learning languages. Languages are more popular with girls and women. In higher education, roughly two-thirds of language students are women. We need to tackle this by making languages more appealing to boys. Similarly, languages are seen as slightly elitist and are associated with independent schools, Russell Group institutions and higher socio-economic groups, which are disproportionately represented when it comes to language learning. We want children and young people from all backgrounds to be learning languages, so language learning needs to become more diverse. The Government are acting to make that so. We are seeking to address the gender imbalance through making course content more flexible in order to engage boys more effectively, developing communications materials aimed at boys and creating new online resources for them.
Although an impressive 92 per cent of primary schools already offer languages, from September 2011 all schools will be obliged to provide language learning as part of the national curriculum. Languages are already compulsory for children aged 11 to 14 and there we are revitalising the curriculum to make it more engaging.
As the Minister for Trade, I have to say that Britain has many strengths. Britain is a country that is highly creative and innovative, strong in science and research, inquiring and adventurous, yet when it comes to foreign languages we seem to have a bit of a mental block. Why do we not have the same success? It cannot be for any innate lack of capability.
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