Do Languages Really Mean Business?

This article has kindly been supplied by Professor Paul Bishop FCIL based on his talk given at the CIOL Scottish Society meeting in May 2017


A recent article by one of the leading Germanists in the UK comes to a sobering conclusion about how modern languages in general and German particular are being taught in the North of England.[1] Its author is Martin Durrell, who famously revised A.E. Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (1971), a revision that is now in its sixth (!) edition. While noting that, for the A-level examination, German is taught on the basis of prescribed topics about the life, culture, society and history of the German-speaking countries on the basis of authentic material, Durrell highlights three major problems with the outcomes of this method of education. First, he claims, ‘no systematic attention is paid to the acquisition of elements of grammar or vocabulary’, with the result that knowledge of these ‘can be relatively limited to what is necessary to succeed in the examination’. Second, he argues, there is ‘an exclusive concentration on the written language, with the acquisition of competence in listening and speaking also based on texts in formal registers’. So third, he concludes, students leaving with A-levels lack ‘the competence (or even confidence) to cope with the register of informal colloquial speech as used spontaneously by native speakers in everyday communication’. Thank goodness things are different in Scotland! Or are they?

In arguing for a fresh approach to modern languages, I do so on the basis of three principles. The first is that it is important to approach to question of the decline in modern languages in a non-dogmatic way. Now my own background in languages is a very traditional one, based on the language-and-literature approach that was common in the twentieth century. I am immensely grateful to my teachers and tutors at school and university; one year, I recall, our French teacher at school introduced us to the subjunctive mood – as a special Christmas treat! (And it was a treat …) However, I recognise that this approach to languages might not be appropriate for the challenges facing students in the post-financial-crash world of the twenty-first century. That’s not to say the traditional approach, of which even ‘Hammer’s Grammar’ is a kind of totem, is wrong. But surely it’s not the only one, and is it even the best one?

Another principle is this: don’t blame the students … Many pedagogues seem to be in a permanent state of despair, critical of the lack of engagement with languages on the part of pupils and students. It’s almost as if languages were the green vegetables of the educational diet: they might not be enjoyable, but the students have got to eat them – or take them – up. Why can’t they see that languages are good for them? people complain. Let’s reverse the proposition behind the question: why are languages seen as so unattractive that students, given the choice, abandon them as soon as they can? In Scotland, the 1+2 initiative – of which the Scottish Government can rightly be proud – promises to bring children in schools into contact with languages at an early age, and to instil a love of them. I support this initiative, without ignoring the impact that any assessment regime can have on the motivation of pupils to learn (and love) their subjects. There are wider issues here, that go beyond the question of languages. For this initiative to be a success, however, there has to be continuity between primary and secondary schooling – as a report by UCMLS has recognised.[2]

Finally, a third principle could be summed up as don’t forget the three C’s… these three things being commerce, culture, and content. There’s something odd about teaching languages outside the context in which they would surely have the most use – i.e., the business or commercial context. Historically, it seems to me, modern languages suffer from being seen belonging to an old model of the arts and humanities. This isn’t going to save them, as the arts and humanities themselves are widely regarded (or at least regard themselves) as being under attack. In an article published in The Observer on 29 March 2015 under the dramatic title ‘The war against humanities at Britain’s universities’, Alex Preston wrote: ‘Higher education is stuffed with overpaid administrators squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of lecturers and focusing on the “profitable” areas of science, technology, engineering and maths’, and asked: ‘Are the humanities at risk of being wiped out?’. What’s wrong with profit? After all, if one of the major arguments in favour of languages is their usefulness for business, why not teach languages right from the start with a clearer emphasis on their commercial application?

This links to the second of the three ‘C’s, culture. Too often, it seems, teaching language and teaching culture is presented as a binary choice, whereas in reality each is co-implicated in the other. In order to teach someone how to construct a grammatically correct sentence, don’t we also have to teach her how to construct a culturally correct sentence? (When to use formal and informal modes of address, for instance.) After all, any vital, living use of a language requires consideration of the complex social codes that govern its use; in fact, in some respects mastering these social codes is even more important than mastering the language. Could we even teach people how to conduct business relations in Germany without teaching them German? It is certainly not ideal, but surely the answer is yes. (From my own experience of teaching texts in translation, getting people interested in the translated version of a text can be a crucial first step toward getting people interested in the language in which it was originally written.)

And the third ‘C’? It’s content – which is to say: why teach languages without reference to what it is they are trying to convey, whether that is (as in the ‘good old days’…) literary texts, or scientific understanding, or commercial negotiation? Indeed, to argue this point even more radically: perhaps we should see languages as sitting, not with arts and humanities, but precisely with science, technology, engineering, or maths. In Northern Ireland, for instance, it has been recognised that further research is required into such cross-curricular approaches to additional language learning at additional language learning such as CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) and STEM-L (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics with Languages).[3] This kind of cross-over has real potential, as I have seen. In May 2017, the Goethe-Institut in Glasgow held a Science Workshop in German, in which six groups of students did a kind of ‘speed dating’ session of 20 minutes with various scientists from Strathclyde University. It was a fascinating experiment: what was it that students found most challenging – issues of German vocabulary, or elements of scientific understanding? At the end of the day, it’s not a choice between languages or science – why shouldn’t students become ‘fluent’ in both?

In a combative opinion piece written in The Telegraph (6 August 2017), Daniel Hannan argued that ‘linguists are following the centre of gravity’ and that, by rejecting modern languages, ‘young people are making a perfectly rational choice’. It would be easy to dismiss this, as some of my colleagues and correspondents did, as ‘typical Telegraph twaddle’. But then a few weeks later in the pages of The Guardian, Simon Jenkins came to the same conclusion: ‘Ignore the panic. There’s little point learning languages at school’, he wrote (25 August 2016). When commentators in two major British broadsheets see fit to celebrate the decline of languages, the languages community has to realize it is losing the argument – and change its approach. Interestingly, the seeds of such an approach could be found in the conclusion of Jenkins’s article: ‘Germany is Europe’s most important country of our day. Teach its history, revel in its culture, analyse the strength of its economy. Visit its cities and countryside – and see how much better they are planned and protected than ours. In comparison, learning Germany’s language is not that important’ – and if we could teach languages in such a way that connects with history, culture, and economics, perhaps we could re-connect pupils and students not just with German but with other languages too. It won’t be easy, and linguists may have to leave their comfort-zone, but to me, it embodies the aim of the Chair in Glasgow that was established in 1919 by the Scottish iron merchant William Jacks – i.e., the pursuit of languages ‘principally for commercial education’. That was nearly a hundred years ago; which shows both how foresighted Jack was at the time – and how far we still have to go.

Paul Bishop FCIL


[1] Martin Durrell, ‘Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im schulischen Deutschunterricht in England’, Deutsch als Fremdsprache 3/2017, pp. 131-141.

[2] University Council for Modern Languages Scotland, ‘1+2: Looking Back and Moving Forward’, report compiled by Marion Spöring (UCMLS), Hannah Doughty (SCILT), and Angela de Britos (SCILT), March 2017

[3] Sharon Jones, ‘Languages in Primary Schools in Northern Ireland’, Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series, 2017.