Does a language have to be European to be ‘modern’?

By May 29, 2017Education

Top 10 languages other than English spoken in England and Wales, 2011 (Source: ONS)

Modern languages are not merely European languages. Obvious as this may seem, it needs restating as I discovered when attending a Westminster Education Forum devoted to “The future of Modern Foreign Languages in Higher Education” in London earlier this year.

The Westminster Education Forum targets policy makers, educational practitioners and academics to share thoughts on issues related to education in the UK. Attended by colleagues teaching “Modern Foreign Languages” in the UK, the focus of the event was staunchly on French, Italian, Spanish – in short, on European languages. As a university educator of Korean, I found this Eurocentrism somewhat surprising and alienating.

While it is true that the provision of Asian language teaching in the UK is poor compared to European languages, we urgently need to have a discussion as to whether this should not change.

To begin with, the linguistic landscape in the UK has radically changed. According to the 2011 Census, after Polish the next five main spoken languages other than English are Asian: Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Arabic. This means that the majority of languages other than English spoken in the UK are no longer European languages but Asian languages. This is in line with migration demographics: The 2011 Census also showed that about a third of the foreign-born population identified as Asian/Asian British (33%, 2.4 million). Until now, however, this linguistic and demographic change has not been significantly reflected in national language teaching.

Most important “languages for the future” according to British Council

Furthermore, Asian languages figure prominently among the most important languages for the UK in terms of trade, diplomacy, and security. According to a 2013 British Council Report, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Turkish and Japanese are the ten most important “languages for the future” in the UK. Korean is ranked 14th in this report.

Unfortunately, language teaching policies are lagging behind. The UK government is only now starting to recognise the importance of Asian languages. For instance, the Mandarin Excellence Programme was launched in 2016 with the aim to deliver a minimum of 5,000 fluent speakers of Mandarin by 2020. This is a very positive move and awareness of the importance of Asian languages now needs to spread to other languages, too.

In my work as Associate Professor of Korean Linguistics at Oxford University, I work towards this goal together with the Korean Embassy. In collaboration with exam boards we work to include Korean as one additional option among the modern foreign languages in the GCSE. However, we sense a reluctance from some exam boards and publishers that is difficult to understand.

The Westminster Forum event was another occasion where a lot of effort was put into the – undoubtedly important – promotion of European language learning. However, why should this have to mean that non-European languages have to be given the cold shoulder? As we reconceptualze the UK’s multilingualism as a national asset, surely all languages have a role to play?

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Author Jieun Kiaer

Dr Jieun Kiaer is an Associate Professor in Korean Linguistics at Oxford University. Currently, she is working with the Korean Embassy to promote Korean Language in the UK, particularly for the development of GCSE Korean.

More posts by Jieun Kiaer
  • Tricia

    Thanks for this update, Jieun Kiaer! I guess any change is naturally met with resistance. But your persuasive efforts backed by empirical evidence will surely (albeit slowly) bear fruit in time. Press forward! 🙂

  • S. J. L.

    It is often said that learning a language can promote understanding the people who speak that language. Also, for the globalized society, it is important to cooperate with people speaking a different language. In this respect, teaching foreign languages particularly, Asian languages will help to enhance understanding of Asian cultures, so that people can collaborate with each other.

  • Sara

    l want to extend on what S.J.L. mentions ‘understanding people better in their target language.’ It is very abstract, however, if we were to shift this to understanding the culture better in the target language (although culture is dependent of its people). Some reluctancy is aided due to individuals beliefs and values that portrays a culture in a way that is perhaps distorted on a larger scale. A western view of those who have immersed themselves in that culture and language learning to better understand it despite economic purposes and the perception of an ‘European language’ on language valuing.

  • VinN

    Hello Kiaer. As an Asian, I am glad that watching Asian languages are given increasing importance in the world.
    I think the power of Asian language may be stronger in Oceania rather than in Europe. I think that is because of international trade and migration. Take Sydney for an example, its is easy to fine a class that teach a language other than English, and they have certain policy support. Furthermore, language service is accessible here. I think the reason may be the strong economic relationship between Australia and Asian and Southeast Asian countries.