Languages and privilege

Learning a language is an immense privilege. Teaching, researching, and working with modern foreign languages is extremely rewarding on multiple levels. Yet the privileges that high-level language competence bring can be fraught with problems, particularly in terms of access to language learning and language mobility.

The word ‘privilege’ is becoming increasingly loaded. Newspapers describe how modern society is tainted by growing disparities between different economic and social privileges associated with rank or status. Yet this meaning of the word ‘privilege’ is only one of a number of meanings of the word (and is classed as the 6th meaning in a list of 10 in the OED).[1] While other meanings have now become obsolete (such as the historical ecclesiastical usages of the term), there is another meaning to the word which is increasingly overlooked:

privilege, n. an exceptionally rare and fortunate opportunity; the honour or good fortune of something or to do something

In much of the recent debate about languages, language teaching, and language learning in this country, there has rightfully been a concern that the removal of compulsory language requirement at GCSE level in 2004 has restricted access to language learning so that only the privileged few (often those at private schools who retain the value of language learning, and can allay the time, costs and hard work it involves through pupil engagement at a high level of achievement). While new provisions are coming into force which should open up access to languages once again, such as increased provision at primary level since 2014, and the introduction of the EBacc language requirement by 2020, the damage that had been done to potential language learners of a certain generation remains palpable. On top of this, community languages go unrecognised in a political landscape which hotly debates the pros and cons of immigration.

As a university academic who has worked in the sector for a decade, I have seen first-hand the changing profile of students coming to study languages. I happen to lecture in one of the major second languages taught in his country, and the language of one of our closest European neighbours with whom we conduct significant amounts of trade. But I am confident speaking 3 European languages besides English, having learnt them at school or university, and as an adult learner I spent 2 years studying Welsh. Putting myself back in the position of a beginner language learner as a ‘grown up’ (albeit one with a natural facility for languages and a heightened technical awareness of grammatical construction, usage, and language-learning techniques) reminded me of the energy and commitment that goes in to mastering another tongue. Unless you are supported and have regular access to ways of hearing, speaking, and writing in another language, it can be extremely difficult to make tangible progress.

And this is why I feel privileged. Not because I have the advantage of being able to negotiate at a high level using foreign languages in complex and nuanced ways. Not because I have the financial wherewithal to travel to the countries that speak the languages I speak. But because languages have bestowed on me a special honour of being able to think and act multilingually. I am comfortable switching between French, Italian, German, and English because I have been enabled to do it for years through sustained access to those languages. I also know that I find switching into German more mentally draining than Italian, for example, perhaps because I have lived and worked in Italy, but never in Germany, or perhaps because I just ‘click’ more with Italian. I have had the opportunity to work in the legal and financial sectors using all 3 of my main languages, and I continue to collaborate with the cultural industries in France in my job as a university academic. The privilege I, and others like me, enjoy is being able to think and behave in completely different ways. I understand how the French structure their arguments and thoughts, and that makes a major difference to how we can work together. The advantages this multilingual – and multicultural – knowledge brings with it cannot be underestimated.

Learn a language, any language, as long as it’s a language. I don’t care which language it is that we each learn besides English (usually choosing one that culturally suits your temperament is a good bet). But I do care that language learning, and all the benefits it brings, is increasingly becoming restricted to a privileged few. The privilege of being a good linguist is an honour that more of us, and a more diverse group of us, need to enjoy, so that it is no longer an exceptionally rare opportunity, and no longer confined to those of a certain social status. Schools, colleges, and universities all have an important part to play in this, but more importantly, we need to start changing the way we think and talk about foreign languages in this country.

[1] “privilege, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.

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