Tag Archives: Guardian

Est-ce qu’il faut parler les langues?

There have been a lot of pieces in the news the last few days, prompted by the GSCE results and the fact that, apart from Spanish, numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages have dropped. The Independent leader criticises the decision to scrap mandatory languages at secondary level, saying:

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

The Guardian editorial says

A suspicion that the web is more Anglosphere-wide than worldwide fuels a feeling that others are under more pressure to learn our language than we are to master theirs. Within a learn-to-earn educational philosophy, it is then a short step to deciding that our priorities should lie elsewhere. This is a dangerous line of argument, even in its own terms. If the weave of the web is working in favour of English, there is an awfully long way to go. Three in four of the world’s people speak no English, which is a lot of people to give up hope of trading with. More profoundly, to forgo familiarity with foreign languages is to forgo the chance to see the world from a foreign point of view.

which reminds me of the argument I always used at school when people asked why I was doing languages – “I can chat up 3 times as many boys as you can”. Even though the likelihood of the 15-year-old me chatting up any boy no matter what language he spoke was a near-zero, the argument seemed to hit home with my fellow 15-year-olds.

A longer piece in the Guardian goes into more detail and raises the point that even if lots of people speak English when we want to buy from them, us speaking their languages when we want to sell to them is more effective. As the article says (and the errors in the German are theirs not mine!):

It is true, says Kelly, that many Germans speak English – “but they are proud of their own language and are pleased if potential partners can make a gesture towards it. And it’s easier to buy things in English than to sell them.” He quotes Willy Brandt: “If I’m selling I’m happy to speak to you in English. But if I’m buying dann müssen sie deutsche sprechen.” The impact on British exports is obvious.

What none of these articles pick up on is that language is a serious industry in its own right for the EU in general and for the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Commission estimated the size of the language industry at €8.4b in 2008, set to grow to €16.5b in 2015. For the UK the report estimated that

the total turnover of the translation and interpretation market … is therefore estimated between €290m and €434m

There is money to be made here and that money will not be going to UK citizens if we neglect our language learning. A study by Cardiff Business School suggests that the UK economy is losing business because of our poor language skills – estimated in 2007 by the same professor to be €9b.

That’s all before we get into issues of EU staffing, mentioned in the Guardian article. The FCO are focusing on this, in the wake of Hague’s speech about it (which I can’t find a link to at the moment). The UK is certainly under-represented in the EU institutions. Now, of course, the Commission is charged to have the European interest at its core, and so there is no question of ploughing a national furrow when you are there. But undoubtedly where you come from informs your approach. When I joined, I assumed there would be this wonderful melding of cultures into a European administrative culture. Wrong – the European Commission is lots of people with very different ways of doing things getting along together and making it work. So having UK people in the mix is important. But if you don’t speak languages, you won’t get in. Even if the entry requirements as they currently stand discriminate slightly against native English, French and German speakers*, the sad fact is that the biggest barrier to entry for most Brits is the language requirement. The other problem is that if anyone learns languages in the UK, they tend to be linguists, whereas what the Commission also needs are agronomists and vets and engineers and computer technicians who speak languages. So I applaud the UK government for trying to encourage more applications, and I have already told them that I and this office will do what we can to help, but at the same time, this language issue needs to be tackled in the broader sense if they are to succeed.

* the entry exams have to be sat in EN, FR or DE, and not in your first language. So if you are an English speaker with fluent Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, you will not be able to take the exam (or at least not have any decent chance of passing). This is true for French and German speakers too, but as most of them will probably have English as at least one of their languages, it is less obviously a problem.

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Links 24 August

It’s been a while, so there are quite a few articles that I’ve picked up on recently. Some might be signposted elsewhere, but better twice than not at all, eh?

One of my secret passions is Rugby League – I’m off to the Challenge Cup Final on Saturday – so I was glad to see it get some coverage in the Guardian away from the sport pages.

The commercial modernisation of rugby league has crushed its ambitions. But as yesterday showed, it can’t crush the pride.

The Wall Street Journal take a different look at national contributions to the EU budget – on a per capita rather than total basis. Interestingly, that pushes the UK way down the list of contributors.

The picture changes quite a bit. Small, rich countries (the Benelux nations, the Nordics, Ireland) rise up; the biggies (particularly the U.K.) fall down.

This item on the Failblog made me laugh so much. Unfortunately I was on the tube and so everyone thought I was a crazy lady.

Among all the dire news about the written press, Roy has some good news for us:

One success story hidden away among last week’s release of the ABC consumer magazines sales figures was the performance of First News, the weekly paper for children.

In the first six months of the year, it registered a sale of 48,314. That was a rise of 22.5% on the same same period in 2009 (when the sale was 39,450).

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Links 9 August

I would love to do a proper post, but it’s been quite busy the last few days, probably due to the arrival of the new boss. so here are some links in the meantime.

Sometime our justice system is not all it could be, or that we would like it to be, but Shirin Ebadi’s article on stoning in Iran in the Guardian puts that in context.

On the face of things, stoning is not a gendered punishment, for the law stipulates that adulterous men face the same brutal end. But because Iranian law permits polygamy, it effectively offers men an escape route: they are able to claim that their adulterous relationship was in fact a temporary marriage (Iranian law recognises “marriages” of even a few hours duration between men and single women). Men typically exploit this escape clause, and are rarely sentenced to stoning. But married woman accused of adultery have access to no such reprieve.

This article in the Boston Globe about facts backfiring is so interesting for our work here.

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

And there are some pretty powerful lessons in SciencePunk’s  Skeptical about Skeptics post, primarily about talking just to your community:

The internet is a wonderful thing, and has allowed groups of people to find one another and work collectively over huge distances, and is very much at the heart of the skeptic movement. But it has also lent an illusion that the online world is an accurate reproduction of the world at large, when it is something of a hall of mirrors. Even this blog is victim to that recursive effect. Writing in a particular style, on a particular subject, from a particular point of view, all this shapes my audience, in effect choosing like-minded individuals who are fairly likely to agree with me on a lot of points. This can create something of a confirmation bias – because unless I come into contact with contradictory views, from someone I respect, I’m unlikely to really be challenged on many of my views. And similarly, lazy or false views will thrive longer than they would in the harsh environment of the outside world.

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Links on 27 July 2010

A return for my occasional series 🙂

Emergency Exit Fail: have you ever felt like this?

An article about Holyrood TV could apply to the EP, I reckon. There is something of a paradox, with lots of talk about openness and transparency, but little interest in such channels. Why should that be? Is it in the execution, or the principle?

Most likely, you will not feel culturally enriched or in any other way transfigured for having watched events from the Holyrood parliament on a live internet feed. Nor will you, in years to come, remember where you were when you heard the news, revealed last week, that these proceedings receive only 7,000 hits per month. Yet this is about 5,000 more than the entire number of people who watched Kirsty Wark’s $1m docudrama about the making of the Scottish parliament when it was first released.

And if you have ever, by chance, watched the Welsh parliament unfolding you may feel that Holyrood TV, in comparison, is being directed by Quentin Tarantino. Unsurprisingly, such a paltry number of viewers has led to loud calls for the service to be discontinued.

Yet this would be an unwise course of action and betrays an ignorance of what Holyrood TV is for. There are many countries where an unaccountable executive and corrupt judiciary daily subvert democracy. For these enslaved people the existence of a kingdom where politicians and their actions are scrutinised daily on the internet may feel like the land of milk and honey.

That is not to suggest though, that live coverage of Holyrood cannot be improved. Indeed, perhaps what is required is for coverage of parliamentary debates to be broken up with little programmes that show our elected representatives in a more human light and make the business of politics more accessible to the punter in the street and the chiel on the croft.

A Guardian editorial on the shift in British diplomacy makes some interesting points about the UK’s EU policy:

A fairer and more transparent way to promote UK business interests is by influencing and enforcing global trade rules through multilateral institutions. That means a closer relationship with the European Union. Britain’s EU partners are relieved that the more rampant strain of Tory hostility to Brussels is not reflected in government policy. Mr Hague, flanked by the usefully polyglot Nick Clegg, has charmed European audiences.

But civil neighbourliness is not the same as constructive engagement. For most of this year the eurozone has been in crisis. This is a problem of existential proportions for the UK’s most important trading alliance, and yet the government has said nothing of substance about it. Many Tories feel smug at having opposed UK membership of the single currency; some Lib Dems are abashed at having advocated it. That might make it an awkward topic within the coalition, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Britain lacks a coherent European policy.

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Women in the world

Interesting debate going on over on the Guardian website, about the position of women in society and especially politics. I was astonished to be told when I took on this post that I am the first woman head of media in London. I never thought to be the first woman anything in my life – I kind of assumed that the generation before had done all the trail-blazing that had to be done. I’m kind of proud of it, but also slightly appalled that it’s taken to 2008 to get there.

Margot Wallstrom was over in London a few weeks ago and during an interview she made an interesting point – is it any wonder that people feel out of touch with the EU when you see the “family photo” from the summit and it is overwhelmingly middle-aged white men? How can you expect young people, people of colour or women to associate themselves with that when they don’t see anyone that could possibly represent them. I’m not a fan of tokenism – I don’t agree that “women” vote a particular way or “young people” – of course there are differences of views across our gender and within different ethnic groups. But if they see *no-one* that seems to have the slightest clue where they are coming from, it’s off-putting at best, disenfranchising at worst. Are we ever going to get to a stage where people don’t comment when all the people representing the Commission at an event, from Commissioner down, are women? I was at an event like that a weekor so ago – would it have invited comment if we had all been men?

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