Not for the first time (nor, one suspects, the last) BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme Today has indulged in a silly and uninformed debate about language. You can listen to it here:
John Humphrys is a professional radio journalist. He is generally known for his aggressive interviewing style, though to me he is more renowned as a classic bad linguist; he has little knowledge of the subject, very strong opinions and easy access to the mass media. His two books about the mangling of English (Lost for Words and Beyond Words) are collections of personal bugbears about other people’s language, coupled with gloomy predictions about English going to the dogs. The usual nonsense.
In the Today programme John Humphrys invited the Shadow Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant to explain his recent assertion that French is a useless language to teach in British schools. Our country would be better served, apparently, by its children getting lessons in more useful languages like Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish. Dr Eckhardt Lubkemeier from the German Embassy was there to make the point that in his country English is the first foreign language offered to all school children because of its useful status as a world language. Other foreign languages come later.
Before the discussion can develop about what makes a language important enough for it to be taught in schools, or what makes a language attractive enough for children to want to learn it, John Humphrys butts in. He says you can stop people in the street in Germany and they will speak back to you in English, and he laughs at the thought of anyone in the UK addressing a passer-by in a foreign language and getting an answer. Clearly it’s our own stupid fault. As a nation we are utterly useless at foreign languages. And this is not good for us because being bilingual makes you more intelligent. Or so he thinks.
Bad linguists love assertions about language based on personal anecdote and/or vague references of research somewhere done by ‘them’. This is Humphrys on how he knows that bilingualism increases intelligence:
“What they have discovered since they have been teaching many, many more children in Wales through the medium of Welsh, [is that] they are learning Welsh and that is improving their overall academic capabilities. I’ve got grandchildren who speak fluently a number of different languages from the age of zero, and they are brighter. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”
Now, I am happy to accept that John Humphrys’ grandchildren are bright. But there is no way to test whether their brightness has been influenced by being fluent in a number of languages. It remains an assertion, possibly coloured by grandfatherly pride. It is not hard to test whether there is a statistically significant difference between the measured intelligence of monolinguals and bilinguals, and it has in fact been done. As far as I know, no-one has turned up evidence of any difference at all. Bilingualism neither increases nor decreases intelligence. It’s neutral. If Welsh-medium teaching has had a good effect in Wales, it’s not down to the pupils’ brains getting a linguistic boost.
Even if we can dismiss the claim that language learning is good for the brain, we are left with the idea that language learning is good for the economy. This is surely Chris Bryant’s point: we should invest vast quantities of public funds in teaching languages such as Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish because we need the next generation of British entrepreneurs to have those language skills when they wade into the markets of South America, China and the Middle East.
Alas, you can lead a child to a language but you cannot make him learn it. Although inspired teaching and frequent exposure are important for success, the crucial factor remains motivation; children will not apply themselves to learn a language unless they see the need. If the world of the internet, blockbuster films, popular music, and international sport were mostly conducted in French or Danish or Russian, British children would eagerly and successfully learn French or Danish or Russian because it would be cool. If you want to teach them Chinese or Arabic or Spanish, then those languages need to get much cooler than they are now.
At the close of the discussion Dr Eckhardt Lubkemeier returns to the assertion that language learning is not all about mere usefulness. Mental skills, creativity, and logical thinking are all promoted, he says, by learning a foreign language. Not only does he need a bit of empirical evidence for these claims, he also needs to show how he would sell the promise of increased logical thinking, creativity and mental skills to a class of typical British schoolchildren. It would surely be as difficult as selling them the idea that when they are grown up they can use their Mandarin to negotiate contracts in China.