I suppose it’s a form of trainspotting, but one of my hobbies is to count the different languages I hear when I’m walking through Bristol. On a good day, it might be something like six or seven. Spanish, Polish or Russian, for the most part, but also Arabic, Japanese, Bulgarian, Italian, Urdu, Albanian ... I’m no linguist, but I can kind of roughly tell the languages apart and make a stab at guessing which ones I’m overhearing.
At the same time, however, learning a language no longer seems to be obligatory in school. My son, for example, has managed to engineer his choices for GCSE so that he won’t ever have to encounter a French irregular verb. Nor will he ever do battle with genitive case endings or the subjunctive (which is, let’s face it, dead and buried in English).
Does it matter? Well, yes. Aside from the nationalist arrogance manifest in the decision that British schoolchildren don’t need to learn another language because English is, of course, the new international lingua franca (a phenomenon for which, brilliantly, English doesn't really have an equivalent translation), this downgrading of language-learning to the ‘optional’ means that we are not only failing to equip an entire generation with another language – whether that be the 'standard' selection of French or German or Spanish – but that we are also failing to equip an entire generation with the ability to learn other languages.
Thirty years on from my last formal language lesson, I’m now attempting to learn Bulgarian and Albanian. This is not just ‘for fun’. It is related to unexpected opportunities and the overall direction that my career appears to be taking. It’s not easy, but it would probably be nigh on impossible if I hadn’t been obligated to learn other languages at school. I certainly learned more about grammar in French classes than I ever did on our English language course where words like ‘inflection’ and ‘declension’ were never mentioned. Never mind what having to dig down into linguistic structure might tell you about everything from perception theory to the conceptualisation of culture.
At a time when we’re hearing so much about globalisation, it seems genuinely saddening that, even in schools, what is, in effect, linguistic imperialism – disguised, of course, as ‘freedom of choice’ – has been allowed to hold sway.