pulpit paul lay

A Plea for Polyglots

‘Unless they want to study the sewerage system in 19thcentury Manchester, historians need languages.’ That is the advice offered to aspiring historians by the distinguished early modernist Geoffrey Parker, an insight obvious enough to border on the banal. Yet the serious study of history in the UK is threatened by the collapse in foreign-language learning in state schools. In 2013, the last year for which figures are available, just over four thousand students studied German at A level, around half of 1 per cent of those eligible; around six hundred will read the subject in some form at university. The figures are little better for other European languages. It is, according to the historians Emile Chabal and Stephan Malinowski, ‘virtually impossible to find any British students at top universities who can at least read some German, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese’. The languages of the rest of the world barely exist at all. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the UK’s university language departments are likely to close over the next decade.

There are deep and fundamental reasons for this collapse. It is not just a shortage of modern-language teachers or the fact that the modern-language A level is considered more difficult than many other subjects and so best avoided by schools with one eye on league tables. As the Cambridge historian John Gallagher points out, countries such as Finland, which has an excellent record in the teaching of foreign languages, have the ‘advantage’ of a language barely known outside their borders. Such motivations are largely absent in the home of the pre-eminent global language. ‘Will students ever learn a foreign language to a high level,’ asks Gallagher, ‘when they know they’ll never truly need it?’

The figures for classical languages, hardly likely to fare well in an increasingly utilitarian education system obsessed with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), are even more depressing: 1,305 students studied Latin at A level, of which the vast majority were educated in the independent sector (and the rest almost exclusively at grammars and ‘posh comps’). I owe those figures to Edith Hall, professor of Classics at King’s College London, author of the superb Introducing the Ancient Greeks and an eloquent advocate of ‘classics for the people’. Hall has argued that languages are not essential to the study of the ancient world and has made a powerful case for the widespread adoption by state schools of ‘classical civilisation’ courses, leaving the hard miles and pedantry necessary for the teaching of Greek and Latin (as well as the challenges of teacher recruitment) to selective and private schools. I don’t have an answer to the divide that exists in British education between the elite and the rest (nor, it seems, does anyone else). But offering the latter classical-civilisation courses, while the former persist in the knottier challenges of language learning and engaging with Homer and Virgil first hand, seems to me only to reinforce the apartheid. As the product of a ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive myself, I would love to agree with Hall, but I cannot. Parker is right.

When I think of the historians I most admire, such as the great surveyor of millenarianism Norman Cohn and the pioneer of the study of late antiquity Peter Brown, they usually turn out to be formidable linguists. Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire, an intricate, brilliantly original study of the Mediterranean in the 16th century, is a supreme recent example of the archival riches that a mastery of a wide range of languages can reveal. Malcolm’s knowledge of Slavic languages, Turkish and Albanian, as well as more familiar European languages, enables him to reconstruct a mosaic of overlapping cultures and faiths in trade with one another, inaccessible to those who lack such prodigious linguistic facility.

Peter Frankopan, another historian with a compendium of languages at hand, has expressed his concern at the diminished horizons of too many historians. One particular intervention was prompted by the sometimes fierce debate conducted in the pages and on the website of History Today between Historians for Britain (HFB), a pressure group of distinguished academics who argue for reform of the EU, and those historians (many more, it seems) who disagree with HFB’s historical arguments for British exceptionalism. Frankopan, a Byzantinist of boundless curiosity, poured scorn on both sides: ‘It is bad enough to read Little Britain type history and to trumpet the idea of trying to build walls around our past; seeing historians try to knit into a theme of Little Europe, where the West is equally sealed off from the great sweep of the global past, is not much better.’

Frankopan’s argument for a genuinely global history, promiscuous in its breadth, serendipitous in its choices, also suggests, to me at least, a new approach to the teaching of languages, one that might result again in a golden age of language learning, casting anew a William ‘Oriental’ Jones, the 18th-century linguist who gained a degree of fluency in no fewer than twenty-eight languages. It does seem bizarre that what language teaching there is in Britain is still dominated by the traditional staples of French, Spanish and German – valuable though these are – despite the considerable influx of people into these islands from every corner of the globe. Why do we not embrace the huge range of languages spoken widely and every day in Britain? Can we not recruit teachers of Hindi and Urdu, Turkish and Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese from within Britain and escape the stranglehold of European languages, ancient and modern? What an opportunity we have to break out of our insularity, to develop dialogue within and beyond Britain and to step outside a constraining national curriculum. If there is, say, a large Turkish population in a particular area, why not teach Turkish within the schools there? The identity of the language barely matters; language teaching is in itself a good thing, and once one language is mastered, others become easier. Otherwise, it is likely that the history departments of our best universities will succumb to the Wimbledon effect: glittering prizes, in beautiful surroundings, where the champions usually come from elsewhere and our own students, outside a small elite, are left to focus not on the barely broached Ottoman archives in Istanbul, for example, but on the sewers of Victorian Manchester. r july 2015 | Literary Review 1