Language Education and Foreign Languages Essay

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Neville Osborne Lecture at Bristol University on 25 November 2003

by Thomas Matussek, German Ambassador in London; for further inquiries, please contact Matthias Klause, Culture Department, German Embassy in London; 020 - 7824 1376;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm delighted to have this opportunity to join you to discuss a subject in which I personally have a great interest: the learning of foreign languages - and I hope you won't mind if the German Ambassador also says something about the importance of German as a foreign language in Britain.

Some of you will perhaps know that I have often publicly expressed my opinions on the subject of Germany's image and the teaching of German and also of history in this country. I'm quite sure that the language learning issue also has a political dimension with implications for our bilateral relationship and for Germany's image in Britain.

I. We need and want Britain as a strong partner in the EU

During this last year, political relations between our two countries have undergone a test - for reasons I'm sure I don't need to go into here. Our governments have had different views, but thanks to the good personal relationship between Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Schröder, these differences have remained well in perspective. I don't now want to discuss the last few months, but the future.

What are the tasks that face us? At the global level, obviously since 9/11 the problem of terrorism stands out, alongside major themes such as maintaining peace, international trade, energy supply, environmental protection and human rights. In all these and more, Europe must become an effective player on the world stage and a strong and significant partner for the US.

For this, Britain is - to put it quite simply - indispensable. Britain has a quite special historical and political experience, a healthy scepticism and a helpful instinct for pragmatic solutions. We therefore believe that Britain must be an integral part of a successful Europe, and try to ensure that it is involved in every area. That is not always easy. Too often, a healthy scepticism is equated with euroscepticism. To me, euroscepticism is a contradiction in itself, as Britain is a part of Europe and embodies some of the best European qualities. A key question for the British government is whether it can best deploy its political weight inside or on the margins of the EU.

II. British educational and foreign language policy

"English is not enough"; "Young people from the UK are at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market", "The UK desperately needs more language teachers".

Those, Ladies and Gentlemen, are not my own statements. They are in fact the conclusions of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry of the year 2000 under the chairmanship of Sir Trevor MacDonald and Sir John Boyd. It is a regrettable fact that for many years, after a strong period in the 1980s, the major foreign languages, French and German, have been in continuous and sometimes dramatic decline in British schools and universities.

Britain faces the great task of changing this trend. It is absolutely in this country's interest that British young people, now and in the future, should be competent in foreign languages. In January 2002 the House of Lords debated the value of foreign language learning. All the speakers agreed that in a globalised world characterised by international links and intercultural connections, linguistic skills and international experience are crucial for employment and career. International skills should have a major part in every young person's school curriculum.

In the meantime the Government has responded. In 2002, it presented its Language Strategy, which sets out the framework for reforms in language teaching. Secretary of State Charles Clarke has several times indicated in conversation with me that this area is a priority of his