On Friday 25th August, Simon Jenkins wrote a column for The Guardian that revived the long-lasting debate around the importance of learning modern foreign languages. Jenkins’s point was essentially that languages are not relevant to British people, speakers of today’s lingua franca, English. In addition, Jenkins states that language learning in formal education is dated and that the subject is as useful as “corporal punishment”, while also being “easy to test, quantify and regiment”. Yet, since computers cannot replace its practitioners, Jenkins’s solution is for full immersion to stay abroad, especially in important countries such as Germany, where culture can apparently be experienced without knowing the local language.
The column received 1048 replies, mostly to rebut Jenkins’s opinions. Several academics and language lovers wrote to The Guardian, which grouped the letters under the telling title “Just speaking English won’t get us very far in the world”. As stated in the first letter, which included MLC’s Professor Charles Forsdick as a signatory, “language is inextricably bound up with history, culture and economics”, and learning a foreign language offers “clear benefits […] across a whole range of domains such as health, security, business, diplomacy and intercultural understanding”. Multilingual individuals are equipped with “crucial skills [that] hinge on enhanced relationships and deep cultural understanding” and that “impact profoundly on business, politics and peace”. It is also worth noticing that employers across the UK are warning of a “deficit in terms of language skills relative to its competitors”, of which all students and educators, not only linguists, should be aware.
Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge Mary Beard also wrote a response on the Times Literary Supplement, making the point that if Jenkins’s argument was “about taking more notice of the outside world […] but not being hooked on the linguistic route to that”, then this was a good point indeed. Learning a language means indissolubly experiencing a culture as well.
The Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Liverpool supports the objections to Jenkins’s article outlined above, and would like to sign off with a quote from Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini: “a different language is a different vision of life”.