Typical bureaucracy

This is a particularly welcome sight as Spanish is one of the languages the UK needs the most according to the British Council’s 2013 Languages for the Future report.

Ermm, most of us assume that the pint of the British Council is to teach the world how great it is to be British. Not to teach Britons how great it is not to be.

45 comments on “Typical bureaucracy

  1. I’ve always gotten the impression Brits are learning Spanish because:

    1) It’s probably the easiest foreign language for a Brit to learn
    2) GCSE Spanish will give them the necessary vocabulary of 10 words to utter when next on holiday in Magaluf.

    I’m not convinced many of this great upsurge in Spanish students are learning the language with any kind of rigour. My kid sister is doing Spanish and French A-level. She got an A* in GCSE French, but have a guess what? She can’t speak French. Barely a damned word.

    It’s good if Brits are learning Spanish, or any other language, properly. If they’re just pissing about for a couple of years and enjoying a “field trip” to Barcelona and come out of it unable to conjugate a verb, I don’t think there’s much to celebrate.

  2. A good comment under the article:

    Invigilating a Year 8 Spanish exam (so, that is after two years of study) in Bermondsey .
    I girl had written her name and then pushed her paper away like a meal she could not eat.
    I said to her quietly, “Come on. Try at least.”
    She said, “Nah. I don’t understand French.” No trace of humour. I did not press her any further.

  3. Tim, languages at school has always been a bugbear of mine. What’s the use of teaching declension and conjugation without teaching conversational skills?

  4. If I need someone fluent in Spanish, my first thought would be to hire a Spaniard. Their command of English is usually far better than most Britons’ command of Spanish. They’re also likely to be able to converse in Portuguese and Italian too, making it cheap to run a pan-European call-centre.

  5. @henry – you need both!

    You must remember that the English learning curve is not very steep – there’s little conjugation and almost no declination, so you can get your feet wet in the language easily.

    Plus, native English speakers are used to hearing bad English, and are tolerant of it.

    In French, you have to be able to conjugate all 3 types of regular verbs, plus a couple of irregular ones in the present tense before you can even string a basic sentence together by yourself, rather than just the set-phrases you’ve memorised.

    Wife is currently struggling in a “modern”-style German-as-a-second-language course. It’s all conversation, and grammar questions are responded to with “it just is”.

    Then just add in the furriners are not used to their language being spoken badly, so they’re intolerant of errors. Try saying “moi vou ouax” to a waiter in a French café. You’d get away with “me wan wohta” to an English speaker, but you won’t get anywhere like that in French.

  6. “Not to teach Britons how great it is not to be.”

    Now that’s a project of which I’d heartily approve.

  7. The only decent case for teaching young Britons Latin is that they’d at least learn to decline something.

  8. Andrew M,

    From a commercial perspective, teaching people a foreign language allows them to make some small talk with a client and not much more. You wouldn’t give an instruction manual or a website to someone with even A level French to translate into French.

    And the problem then is, well, what language does your client have? If someone discovered my website and wanted my services, are they from Italy, Korea, Japan, China or Sweden? So, which language do I expend time learning? I’m not going to get Google Translate to do it. It’s remarkable for what it is, but you can’t use it professionally. So, do I spend months or years learning each of those, or do I find a translator who has done that learning and pay them by the hour to do it?

  9. The trouble with Mr Herbert’s article is that, like 95% of articles about the state of foreign language learning in Anglophone countries, it’s saying things that are just not true. He writes, “We need far more of our young people to learn languages in order to boost their own job prospects and to ensure the UK stays competitive on the world stage.”
    In real life the job and salary prospects of most native English speaking pupils are almost unaffected by having studied a foreign language. Of course there are exceptions – one my children is one – but 95% of the time a language qualification simply adds to your UCAS points total. It has some extra value as an unfakeable subject, but no more than a STEM qualification does. As for the objective of ensuring the UK “stays competitive on the world stage”, (a) who gives a damn about UK competitiveness in their personal choices? (b) if bureaucrats do care, that objective is vastly better advanced by getting the brats to study some subject related to areas in which the UK has a comparative advantage. Which, famously, ain’t languages.

    I am vastly more sympathetic to apparently airy-fairy justifications for learning foreign languages, like “you will gain an insight into other ways of thinking”, or “you will enjoy your time abroad”, or “when you meet attractive foreign persons your suit will be more likely to prosper”. These promises are quite likely to be true if you apply yourself. The “proof that you can learn something difficult” factor can also be honestly promised.

  10. @henry – you need both!

    Exactly. I found the two-pronged approach to learning French and Russian worked well: learn the grammar and language rules whilst simultaneously get as much oral and aural practice as you can.

  11. In French, you have to be able to conjugate all 3 types of regular verbs, plus a couple of irregular ones in the present tense before you can even string a basic sentence together by yourself, rather than just the set-phrases you’ve memorised.

    The cruelest thing in French is that the most useful verbs – to go, to have, to do, to be, – are irregular (albeit some only in the future & conditional). 🙁

    You wouldn’t give an instruction manual or a website to someone with even A level French to translate into French.

    One of the things that continually amazes me is that foreign companies do just that when it comes to English. I have seen high-level presentations and literature put out by top-tier French and Russian companies where nobody has run it by a native English speaker. Even my own company’s (English) tagline was obviously not run by a native English speaker because it sounds clumsy as hell. On the other hand, a Dutch mate of mine used to run shopping centres in Russia. He would routinely send me all his brochures and other literature (including the automated phone messages) which had been professionally translated but he wanted a native English speaker to go through them. There were *always* small errors or things which, although grammatically correct, you would just never say.

  12. I am vastly more sympathetic to apparently airy-fairy justifications for learning foreign languages, like “you will gain an insight into other ways of thinking”, or “you will enjoy your time abroad”, or “when you meet attractive foreign persons your suit will be more likely to prosper”. These promises are quite likely to be true if you apply yourself. The “proof that you can learn something difficult” factor can also be honestly promised.

    It’s hard to argue with that. Language skills do me no damned good whatsoever in cold professional terms, but in airy-fairy terms they are a huge benefit.

  13. Language skills did me a world of good professionally and helped me enormously with getting off the prison island. Every postgraduate job I have had has been contingent on language skills.

    I am a complete PITA to our translators, since I draft patents in French and then check English translations, or vice-versa.

  14. I know someone who is a native Spanish speaker and has South American qualifications in teaching. Despite these qualifications being validated by Naric she still has problems getting a job teaching in a UK school.
    If it were the reverse a native qualified English teacher wanted to work in South America then it would be a lot easier.
    Thanks Nick Clegg etc for insisting that only QTS teachers can get jobs here.

  15. Hi, Natalie.

    > I am vastly more sympathetic to apparently airy-fairy justifications for learning foreign languages, like “you will gain an insight into other ways of thinking”, or “you will enjoy your time abroad”, or “when you meet attractive foreign persons your suit will be more likely to prosper”. These promises are quite likely to be true if you apply yourself. The “proof that you can learn something difficult” factor can also be honestly promised.

    Well said. I think “How will this qualification be used by industry?” is one of the worst influences on modern British education. There seems to be no understanding left that forcing your brain to do a variety of difficult things makes your brain better at doing varied and difficult things.

    My French A-level rotted away years ago — I was actually fluent when I got it; now I can get by ordering some food. But, just because I’ve never needed to speak French at work, doesn’t mean I’ve never used it.

    Friend of mine was one of the best Latin pupils his school ever had (I know his Latin teacher). He is now earning a fortune. He’s not using the Latin, but he is using the fact that he is intelligent and dedicated enough to be good at Latin.

  16. The costs and benefits of learning languages are very asymmetric – it is clearly worthwhile for many Danes to learn English, often to a high level, yet this renders it almost completely futile (from a professional standpoint) for a Brit to learn Danish. London has hundreds of bilingual speakers of every major language, and many minor ones to boot. What would the point be for me to learn Urdu or Mandarin, an exercise which (to reach worthwhile levels at a professional level) would take years of solid study – far higher than GCSE or A level?

  17. S2

    Agreed that some things were worth learning for their own sake. And education is about long term foundations – what’s useful to plug a skills gap right now, may no longer be a “hot” subject in 10 years time, but your education should theoretically equip you for 40-50 years.

    But I do think there’s a place for skills analysis in the education system and ESPECIALLY on the generally undervalued non-academic, non-university routes. Our vocational colleges churn out thousands more hairdressers, photographers, “media studies” BTEC-holders etc than there are jobs for and that’s a really futile waste of resources in teaching them and a waste of their last few years in education – if they were destined for shelf stacking or factory work they’d have been better to do a retail diploma or some technical training.

  18. “Our vocational colleges churn out thousands more hairdressers, photographers, “media studies” BTEC-holders etc than there are jobs for and that’s a really futile waste of resources in teaching them and a waste of their last few years in education – if they were destined for shelf stacking or factory work they’d have been better to do a retail diploma or some technical training.”

    Could be worse. Could be France, where central government dictates the number of places for vocational training. I heard an interesting radio programme about it – CH takes a market approach to subjects and numbers of places, whereas FR directs from the centre. Thus, every year, they train up a large number of girls for secretarial work – a job which prepares them for a career anno 1989 and hardly exists any more in such a form.

  19. Ha! I’m reminded of NI, where we had at one point a shortage of maths teachers but the government were making no incentives available to train as a maths teacher on the grounds that the training course was oversubscribed.

    Also reminded of the current shortage of nursery places in much of the UK. Children start nursery aged 4. The NHS learn the child is on its way within the first trimester. How the fuck do the state contrive not to have enough places available?

  20. “Interesting, thank you. How does CH do it exactly?”

    Totally simple – leaves it to the various schools to decide what courses they offer and how many places they offer.

  21. Any idea how well the CH system matches what the kids want to study to what the employers wish they were?

  22. Could be worse. Could be France, where central government dictates the number of places for vocational training.

    A similar subject came up the other day, regarding French engineering degrees. It appears that the French courses are very heavily slanted towards the theoretical/mathematical stuff, and not much by way of practical application. During my MEng at Manchester, I did an industrial placement plus a module in Project Management, which at least showed me *some* degree of real-world application of all these Greek equations. But in France, they don’t go in for this, and the sign of a good engineer is some whizzkid/nerd who is super clever and brilliant at maths.

    The results when they get put on a project are as one would expect.

  23. Squander Two, decades ago I worked in computer recruitment. You will know better than I if things have changed in that field nowadays, but in those days a computer science degree did not do nearly as much to interest prospective employers in a candidate as a language degree. That qualifications in maths and sciencey stuff were good to have in a programmer kind of went without saying, but the value placed by employers on languages (or a music degree for some reason) came as a surprise to me then.

  24. Natalie,

    I heard years ago that maths and music use the same part of the brain. Maybe that’s apocryphal (though it would explain a lot of people I’ve known, myself included), but that wouldn’t matter: if I heard it, the employers heard it too.

    > in those days a computer science degree did not do nearly as much to interest prospective employers in a candidate as a language degree.

    Interesting. I think, in IT, there is a still a general recognition that a lot of people get very good indeed by locking themselves in a room for a few years — so a degree, while it can be useful, is not worth insisting on. One of the world’s leading superfast big-data database solutions was built by a loner at home. I have no idea whether he had a degree, but I doubt it — and, if he did, he clearly got the degree by being brilliant with computers, not the other way around.

    My limited experience of recuitment (from both sides) is that companies will assume that, if you know one computer language, you can easily learn another. One of my employers didn’t even care whether you already knew even one language: they had a hiring test that checked a candidate’s basic ability at logical analysis, and assumed that any eejit could be taught COBOL.

    For application support roles, I reckon attention to detail and a willingness to admit to mistakes trump any sort of computing education.

    (I should add that I do not speak for my own employers’ recruitment policies. I have to say these things nowadays, with everyone knowing who my employers are.)

  25. “Any idea how well the CH system matches what the kids want to study to what the employers wish they were?”

    Well, given that these are vocational placements combined with part-time work, one presumes rather well.

    A colleague’s son is currently balancing study / working in a bank / being a semi-pro racing cyclist.

  26. Is there any time soon going to be some sort of earpiece translator which will convert all the foreign one requires instantly? I learned Latin at school. The master was a paedophile and a sadist and I spent more time keeping my eye on him than on the various verbs.

    Friend of mine lived in France as a young man, just dossing. Has a flair for accents and gestures so within three months he looked and sounded like a native Frenchman. Trouble was his knowledge of grammar and even words was limited – I think he said he called an ice cream a ‘cold stick with sugar’ – so everyone he met assumed he was French but a simpleton.

  27. so everyone he met assumed he was French but a simpleton.

    He should have gone to work in a prefecture, he’d have slotted in seamlessly.

  28. Squander Two –

    Quite so.

    As Development Manager for a small software house, I’ve been in the position of having to sift through applications for a developer position.

    I tend not to give a fig about which university an applicant attended, nor even the level of his degree. I don’t even care whether he is experienced in the programming languages we use. Instead, I administer a general logic test, four questions which are really quite surreal at face value. The candidates are told they needn’t necessarily solve each problem, but need only to show their workings out – how they would go about approaching the problem. The goal, of course, is to determine whether they can think like a programmer. If they can, then I can teach them the languages we use, if necessary. But if they can’t think like a programmer then there is just no point in even considering them; they will never be able to function adequately.

  29. S2,

    “Interesting. I think, in IT, there is a still a general recognition that a lot of people get very good indeed by locking themselves in a room for a few years — so a degree, while it can be useful, is not worth insisting on. One of the world’s leading superfast big-data database solutions was built by a loner at home. I have no idea whether he had a degree, but I doubt it — and, if he did, he clearly got the degree by being brilliant with computers, not the other way around.”

    The key thing is demonstrating your skills. I’ve interviewed people with comp sci degrees who couldn’t cut it.

    It is worth remembering that a comp sci degree isn’t a programming qualification. You cover quite a lot of deeper stuff that you don’t need to write code. But that depth does informs your thinking.

  30. All the job ads for software engineers, web designers and so forth here put a very high premium on speaking English. It’s given as much weighting as technical experience in most cases.

  31. Stigler –

    It is worth remembering that a comp sci degree isn’t a programming qualification.

    Having been burned previously, we would never again hire anyone who came from the public sector, regardless of his degree. We are a private sector company that depends on delivering the goods for the client hiring us. Writing software for the general user is a mindset in itself, entirely independent of one’s programming qualifications.

  32. MyBurningEars – “What would the point be for me to learn Urdu or Mandarin, an exercise which (to reach worthwhile levels at a professional level) would take years of solid study – far higher than GCSE or A level?”

    A spoken language probably does not require a great deal more study than any other spoken language. Although some, like Arabic, are harder than others. It would not take a long time to learn Mandarin at a spoken level. It is the writing that is essentially impossible if you don’t start at 5 and have parents who beat you on a regular basis.

    But Urdu should be fine. Why would that take a long time? The chaps who ran India used to be given a year to get it up to speed or they were on the first boat back to Blighty.

    Everyone here is talking about languages where there are reasonable numbers of people who speak both. There is no surprise in a British person being able to speak Spanish. But acquiring an Asian language, even at the most basic level, is often a great thing because no one does it. Maybe Japanese is just passing through this phase where now the Japanese are not surprised and pleased that a White person can speak some Japanese. But the Koreans are definitely still there. And a worrying chunk of Chinese TV seems to consist of inviting Africans to try out their Chinese to the general amusement of all.

  33. Learning English for non-English speakers is a bit different than us learning say Spanish. A Spaniard may learn English and speak a basic and simplified English all day long, and never to an English speaker, its the gateway to speaking to the world for billions of people, and is something we never have to think about, being native speakers.

    I have noticed that Continentals speak a stripped down version of English to each other – go hang out round a fountain in Madrid with the youngsters – the Italians and Spanish and French and Germans etc speak English to each other, though its a simplified version that would quickly bore us.

    None of us would think to learn a foreign language to speak to any but the natives of that language.

    Learning a Latin (or any) language gives you a broader, deeper more subtle view of us, our place in the Europe and World, our history, their history etc etc etc – it make you a better person, though in truth there is not much practical communication value to it in a world where johnny foreigner surely speaks better English.

    And another point, they need to speak English, its important for their careers and much else (movies etc), whereas for us speaking foreign is just nice to have. When I was working in Spain, I liked to try my Spanish, but we weren’t there help me learn Spanish, and the opportunity to improve their English with a genuine native speaker was much more important to my Spanish colleagues than was my desire to improve my Spanish – we spoke English at work in Madrid (banking/IT).

  34. “where now the Japanese are not surprised and pleased that a White person can speak some Japanese. ”

    I get that here in CH. They’re supprised an Ausländer speaks dialect, since the overwhelming majority function just fine with spoken high german and passive understanding of dialect.

    When they learn I’m English, it’s priceless (particularly as I have a bit of a Dutch accent in it)

    For me, it’s just self-evident to learn the *real* language from an integration perspective.

  35. “Totally simple – leaves it to the various schools to decide what courses they offer and how many places they offer.”

    Far-right dangerous nonsense! Probably neo-liberal too.

  36. Interested,

    > Is there any time soon going to be some sort of earpiece translator which will convert all the foreign one requires instantly?

    Microsoft have already released the beta software, I believe. Sure, it’s beta, but still. It’s not far off.

    PST,

    > But if they can’t think like a programmer then there is just no point in even considering them; they will never be able to function adequately.

    Yes, and the world is full of these people now, who’ve been on a Java course and learnt the language and simply cannot program.

    Stig,

    > It is worth remembering that a comp sci degree isn’t a programming qualification.

    There is a tendency in IT to think of it as an academic subject rather than a skill. You go on a training course, and it’s always “Read these documents, listen to this presentation for two hours, then try this example for ten minutes.” Completely fucking useless. I blame comp sci degrees. And it infects the industry. I’ve lost count of the number of support jobs I’ve done which have started with someone handing me all the documentation of the system architecture and giving me a day or three to memorise it. As if that is going to be the remotest bit of use.

    Bonk,

    A Serb told me something years ago: learn a hundred words of English and you can get by in any English-speaking country. Whereas one hundred words of, say, German is completely fucking useless in Germany. A lot of people claim that English is becoming the world’s lingua franca as a legacy of empire, but it’s not that. Plenty of imperial languages around that get abandoned first chance the erstwhile invadees get, and they never spread much outside the empire — it’s not as if the Pakistanis are all clamouring to speak Russian, because hey, they had a nearby empire. English has caught on because it actually is quite brilliant. The largest vocabulary of any language — three times larger than the second-largest, apparently — but you need less of it to communicate than any other. It really is the best language. I’m privileged to be a native speaker.

    The other advantage most foreigners have when it comes to learning a language is that there is usually already another very similar language that they can get by in with minimal effort: Czechs understand Slovak, Norwegians understand Swedish, Spanish is extremely familiar to Italians, etc. That gives them a big head-start in the whole concept of speaking multiple languages.

    English is, highly unusually, an actual new language. It’s (broadly) a mixture of various Frenches and Germans with all the bits of grammar that were incompatible between the two languages chucked out. So there is no language out there so similar that it’s easy to learn. We perhaps shouldn’t be so hard on English-speakers for finding foreign so difficult. It really is a bigger leap for us.

  37. I’m not convinced learning oral Mandarin is easy, though clearly written is far harder. As I understand it, some people have an “ear” for the tones, similar to having a “musical ear” (in fact the two are closely related which is apparently why people who speak Chinese natively are good at singing in tune) but lord help you if you don’t.

  38. I get that here in CH. They’re supprised an Ausländer speaks dialect,

    I’m surprised that the locals speak Schwyzerdutsch. They need to learn something that makes sense. 🙂

  39. Having taught someone to speak English, I’d say one of the best parts of the language is we’re not really all that bothered about word order or agreement between words. You can pretty well speak English as a stream of conciousness. The cat sat on the mat, on the mat the cat sat, cat sit mat on. As long as you’ve got the two nouns, roughly the right version of the verb & the preposition, the rest comes out of obvious context.
    And no f*****g genders! (Except for just the once.)

  40. Pingback: Home truths about why English-speaking students are turning away from foreign languages « Samizdata

  41. All the talk about how to sort the wheat from the chaff when employing programmers reminded me of a half-serious comment made by an old colleague who used to be deputy DPM of a large industrial concern – and was responsible for interviewing technical applicants… He reckoned that, for programmers, it was possible to get the interview down to one question – depending on the age of the applicant (bearing in mind this was some many years ago) – he’d ask “do you like the Goon Show / Monty Python?”. If the answer was “yes” he reckoned that they’d make a decent programmer, if “no”, maybe an accountant.. 🙂

    Since then I’ve mentally applied the test to people I’ve come into contact with in the IT industry and found that with very few exceptions those that I’d not employ to make the tea, let alone program, were in the “no” camp and all the brilliant techies were “yes”.

    There will be no charge for the dissemination of this valuable technique. 🙂

  42. @s2 – “it’s (broadly) a mixture of various Frenches and Germans” – in fact its not even as complicated as that, its a stripped out mix of various north sea forms of old german – you can get rid of all the latin and what’s left is most certainly still english. There’s lots (lots and lots) of french/latin added, but its not core.

    And if you want to take it to a higher level, its perhaps broader, richer, deeper than any other language.

    Consider, ( say of landlords who don’t return deposit – this came up at work).

    “that they fuck themselves”
    – which might translate nicely into several european languages, but in English you might in fact form it with three additional auxiliary verbs
    – “they can all go and get fucked”

    English is simple if you want it, but in the hands of practised speakers its a complicated rich and subtle language.

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