Bishop of Derby on need for a strategic policy to put languages at the heart of learning

On Thursday 18th January 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Coussins “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the importance of modern foreign language teaching in schools and universities, and of the impact of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the sustainability of that teaching.” The Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. I want to say something about the general importance of the subject, and then some specific things about business and primary. The noble Baroness has set out a lot of the data, which is the foundation.

In my tradition there is a myth called the Tower of Babel, which many of you will know, which points to the reality of the human condition being that we live in a massive number of language groups. That is either a challenge for conflict or an opportunity for co-operation. The key is for language therefore to be used creatively.

The late Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of West Germany, wrote that nobody should go into politics unless they can speak at least two languages—so they would have to join the noble Baroness’s group. That is important because he meant that we need to understand not just our own culture but how other people think through their language, so that they can look at you, your business activities and your political values—whatever it is. Communication depends on understanding language not just in your space but from somebody else’s point of view.

Before we just think, “Well, we’re all English; we just speak one language”, as the noble Lord has just referred to, we should remember that we are all linguistic anyway. We speak the language of the head and the language of the heart, the language of consciousness and the language of unconsciousness. There is a universal language, which religion, sport and compassion unite ​us in, across spoken languages. We are all linguistic creatures, so we can aim high. We do not have to think this is just about a few people patching the thing up as we try and struggle against collapse.

I will give a little example of why it is so important, again from my own discipline. In medieval times, a word in the Bible was translated as “do penance”, meaning in relation to an institution. The Reformation discovered the word actually means not “do penance” but “repent”, which is a state of the heart. That is a totally different understanding of the language, from an institutional frame to the individual having values and aspirations. That is why it is important to get language right and to understand it.

We need a strategic policy to put languages at the heart of our learning. I support everything that has been said about primary schools. I have a granddaughter called Lila, who at nursery school, at the age of three or four, was learning Spanish and was so excited about it. She could say the words. There is something in all human beings that can be developed for language, and we have to press on and do that.

I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that there could be a strategy that puts language at the heart of learning, both to grow human beings more fully and to equip us to take our part in an international world of business, politics and values. Without that, we will be very impoverished.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con) …I was interested also to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said. He made an important point about the commonality of language to cross religious and country values.


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