Modern languages or -- "What's French for entrepreneur?"
Occasionally, I hate the House of Lords. That's when the unelected Lords Mandelson and Adonis are busy running the country, with no come-back from us voters (Daily-Mail-style rant has been suppressed here). More often, I thank God that we still have them -- with all their unelected, clever and un-self-interested sense of responsibility and duty. (Yes.)
Last week was a great example of this when Baroness Coussins (ex of my own Cambridge college, I confess) launched a debate (starting at "Column 807") on the state of Modern Languages and its relationship to the economy. One nice fact she brought out pretty soon was that languages in this country are in such a parlous state that we may not be able to provide all the translators we need for the 2012 Olympics. Now I have very mixed feelings about this money-burning sporting extravaganza -- but the idea that it should fail because we haven't got enough interpreters... That does hurt.
So do take a look at this Lords debate, which got almost no publicity at all.
There are some wonderful Lordsy bits. It's only in the Upper House that you would find someone interjecting with the alleged quip of George Bush Junior's (already famous, I concede, in some quarters): "The thing that's wrong with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur" .. and find that the other participants in the debate would actually get the joke. Indeed, as you'll see if you read the debate, the hereditary Tory peer Lord Selsdon turned it into a learned disquisition about entrepreneurs, undertakers and croques-monsieur (plural?) -- which you had better read for yourselves.
But, one after another, the contributions about the lamentable state of modern language teaching (notwithstanding some excellent teachers) in the country rang true to me -- as did the their homing in on the real and economic need to keep our linguistic skills up.
Take a look at Lady Coussins's contribution, which points out that in 2000 51% of web traffic was in English; now it is just 29% (and it is not just the growth of Chinese -- whose share has increased by just 5%). Or the intervention of Lady Butler-Sloss, who talks about the decline of languages at the University of Western England (it has, as she reports, "ceased recruiting" in French, Chinese studies and Spanish). Or read what Onora O'Neill has to say (ex-principal of my college, but not a Newnham conspiracy honestly --more a Newnham CAUSE). She rightly raises the issues of the effiicacy of Primary School languages, much boasted about by the government. So far this provision depends very largely on enthusiasts. And what is the good of it anyway, if there isn't high quality, professional follow through at Secondary level?
Let's hope Lord Mandelson was listening to this.