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Parlez-vous diplomacy? English won’t serve the UK abroad

A report from the British Academy has warned that a lack of foreign language skills could undermine the UK’s future security and capacity for global influence. The report warns of an apathy towards language…

Modern diplomacy requires a more delicate touch. Haydn West/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A report from the British Academy has warned that a lack of foreign language skills could undermine the UK’s future security and capacity for global influence.

The report warns of an apathy towards language learning in some parts of government. But the “radically different landscape of international engagement and security” that we find ourselves in makes these skills more important than ever.

Because of globalisation, international communication is no longer the preserve of the Foreign Office and diplomats. Our energy policies are international, our business policies are international and our defence activities are certainly international.

The report’s emphasis on the importance of languages will come as little surprise to many analysts of contemporary international affairs.

Language skills have long been recognised as fundamental to successful diplomacy. An important role of diplomats since antiquity has been as messengers. That role can only be properly fulfilled with an understanding of language.

This doesn’t always mean being able simply “speak” a foreign tongue but to be able to communicate with an “other”. Language is determined by time, place and cultural context. To that end, we would do well to remember that language skills are not just about picking up vocabulary and grammar but relate to the more general concept of communication.

Languages and universities

The report emphasises a particular concern about the teaching – or lack thereof – of foreign languages in British universities. Modern languages are in a fragile state and face even greater challenges now the government has removed teaching subsidies and increased tuition fees, which are now supposed to cover the cost of teaching.

Because funding now comes from students, many language departments may struggle to make courses financially self-sufficient if they can’t recruit enough people to pay for them. This is a concern given the importance of these subjects to national security and prosperity.

But UK higher education institutions may well be able to play to a comparative advantage in the short term. They are well practised at teaching rigorous analytical skills across disciplines, particularly those that support communication. When an undergraduate studies for a business degree, they will take in all kinds of skills along the way. When they read law, they are taught theory and practice. When the learn in the arts and humanities they are often as not assessed with an essay; itself a written form of communication.

Now, more than ever, the practicalities of “having” a language are self-evident in looking at future careers and social relationships. What’s more, many universities strongly encourage undergraduates to study a language as a part of a joint honours degree with another subject.

That means universities can support a student’s understanding of communication as they learn the nuts and bolts of a language. The British Academy report notes that universities are taking steps to adapt to the changed world and that some parts of government are too.

But the UK has a tendency towards complacency when it comes to language that really won’t wash in a world in which China and India are emerging as global powers.

Equally, we should be in no doubt that being custodians of the lingua franca of the internet is not a perpetual guarantee of the prevalence of English. Language has undergone significant change in recent times, particularly in its electronic usage, and that is likely to continue.

The English language may well be the last vestige of a bygone imperial age: if it is, it will end as did the notion that the sun never set on the British Empire.