Chatting to the Neighbours

I was chatting to a neighbour the other day, or rather, she was chatting to me. I don’t see much of her and her family, as happens in a typically modern suburb community, and I’ve always known – as one does – that we’d never be more than neighbours. After our chat the other day, I am definitely going to keep her at a distance.

To be honest, I really didn’t want to chat to her much at the time anyway, so I was slowly trying to make my excuses and get away, but what she said next made me stop in my tracks. I hadn’t really been paying much attention, but I soon realised she was talking about education in general, and her kids’ subjects at the local school in particular. I started to take more notice when her overall complaint about schools today led her to tell me about her son, who has been in secondary school for a couple of years, and that he hates German and that he wants to drop it, but is not allowed to. She said she couldn’t understand why he couldn’t drop German and get on with sciences – implying ‘proper’ or ‘more useful’ subjects. She was quite agitated. “He’s not going to be a teacher”, she argued, “and he’s not going to live in Germany, so why should he have to learn German?”

I was staggered. I just stared at her but tried to stay calm and, well, neighbourly. Yet I felt a stab of anger poke me into action to deliver counter-arguments, which I did, but I could see it was useless. I may as well have spoken to her in a foreign language.

For one thing, how does she know her son is not going to be a teacher one day? And for another, how does she know he won’t ever live in Germany? (I didn’t bother pointing out that Austria and Switzerland were also options she was turning down on his behalf – or was she also sure he wasn’t going to live there either?) And anyway, who says you have live in a place to learn its local language? You might simply visit these places some time, which is reason enough. And, of course, these are not the only reasons for a Brit, or anyone else, to learn a foreign language. Not by a long way. You know the reasons and so do I.

Her timing couldn’t have been worse. Only two days earlier I had given a talk at a local primary school to a group of about 80 pupils from the top year – the P7s (10–11 year olds).

I’m a presenter as part of my work, but I only do this with teachers of English as a foreign language, so preparing for this one was something of a challenge and it needed some different thinking. After all, the audience was to be pre-teens whose L1 is English. I thought hard about it all, as I really wanted them to see the value of learning a foreign language, and I know the odds are against them. We are an island without an L2 on our borders, and it is well documented how little the government supports language learning in the UK. And how, culturally as well as notoriously, the British often see learning another language as pointless if everyone else speaks English ‘and is foreign anyway’!

So what did I tell the kids? Sure, amongst other useful things such as my starting to learn Spanish of late (it’s true - and it’s fun), I gave them a slideshow of my varied and fulfilling life at whose core was a love for and belief in language learning, an insatiable desire to see the world and to meet as many different people in it as possible.

I showed how my decent French and fluent German have led to friendships and adventures I could never have dreamed of: teaching in Germany for four years (not something my mum or I expected I’d do either – so much for knowing what a child will or won’t want later on); having the summer of my young life as a student worker in a hotel in the Bavarian Alps; working on a cruise ship around the Caribbean simply because I could communicate with German-speaking passengers and take them on island trips; a fascinating and rewarding career in international ELT publishing, working with some of the best and most creative minds in education, and sales and marketing ; working in German-speaking markets at a deeper level than many of my peers; loving to watch films or read novels in German without thinking too much; meeting many German speakers and thus making interesting new friends; and knowing – really knowing – what another culture and its values really are, for better or worse. And how that makes you get to know your own, for better or worse. Which makes it all sound a bit like a marriage, and in a way it is. A lifelong relationship with another self. It’s there if you know how and where to look, and then you work at it. Worth the effort. Bigger than the sum of the parts. Complete.

And so what did I tell my neighbour? I wanted to share all of the above, and tell her that her attitude represented some of the typically British clichéd negativism and incorrect arguments and assumptions, which allow foreign languages to literally fall on deaf ears. But I didn’t, because I was speechless (in any of my languages), not to mention outraged and frustrated more than I realised. Standing there that day, I felt I could kick myself for thinking that the government, teachers and publishers need to work harder or more creatively at delivering to young people the positive message about learning foreign languages. But governments and policies can and do change for the better, and the quality of teaching and materials is already high. It’s the parents – that is my cliché. I blame the parents. The ones who pass down and reinforce a false and lazy idea to their children, denying them the opportunity of a lifelong skill with so many benefits, and denying them the chance to get to know their real neighbours.