This week has brought another excellent crop of A Level results, and I send a special congratulations to the leavers of St Mary’s Calne, who are now headed for leading universities across the UK and the world, including seven (of the year group of fifty) to Oxbridge, and three to North America. They are raring to go, and will most definitely make their mark at university and beyond – well done to them!! There are plenty of scientists and linguists amongst them, and this consoled me to some degree as I read Thursday’s Guardian article about the decline in the take-up of languages at A Level across the country, which is alarming.
According to the article, only around 12,500 students took A Level French this year, and fewer than 5,000 took German. The number of entries for Spanish dropped slightly too, to approximately 7,300. A few languages saw a slight increase: from 844 last year to 923 for A Level Polish, and from 3,237 to 3,425 for Mandarin, for instance. These figures hide the age of the candidates, but it is a fair guess that not all of them are 18 year old school students, ready to extend their knowledge of the subject at university and beyond; also unclear is the proportion of native speaker candidates, but again it is a fair guess that some of the increases come from heritage or native speakers of the language in question. All told, this paints a pretty bleak picture of the level of preparedness of our new generations to be able to communicate effectively in a global world.
Of course, English is widely spoken, widely used and widely recognised as one of the major languages of the world. But my time in China earlier this summer, for example, reinforced to me the power of Mandarin as almost a necessity in tomorrow’s – if not, in fact, today’s – world. With a population of almost 1.4 billion in China alone, and native Chinese speakers spread throughout the world, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world. Being able to speak to someone on their own terms in a sign of respect for them and for their culture, and is equalising – sharing a common language brings with it a level playing field of communication.
But above all we need to learn language – any language, in fact – because, as the gateway to another culture, it teaches us that, of ourselves, we are not the centre of a private universe. We are part of a gloriously diverse world, where unique individuals are knitted together through shared customs and cultures, and when we travel, meet people and communicate in different tongues, we discover that although we are all different, we all share an essential humanity in which we are all equal to one another. Languages open doors to a richer understanding and appreciation of the human race. They should be taught by experts in all primary schools. A language course – not necessarily an exam course, but a meaningful course of study – should be taught all the way through senior school. Our politicians should extol the virtues of learning languages, and lead by example.
In this world, we all need to be communicators. Let’s make sure our young people this.