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Squandered worlds

By Nicholas Ostler - posted Friday, 23 May 2008

I was struck by Joe Lo Bianco’s persuasive description of Australia’s current language education policy as “squandering the gift of home-grown bilingual skills”. It reminded me of a gut-wrenching - and for me unforgettable - moment in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men: “Chigurh shot him through the forehead and then stood watching. Watching the capillaries break up in his eyes. The light receding. Watching his own image degrade in that squandered world.” There is something ultimately repellent in the idea of a bully in self-absorbed fascination, gratuitously ending another’s whole experience of the world, watching a life ebb away, lost beyond recall.

I don’t want to suggest that such psychopathic cruelty is one of the motives for the nihilism of current policy towards foreign language teaching in Australia - and even more in my own country the United Kingdom, where in 2002 any requirement to study a foreign language in secondary school was ended, and where since that fateful decision we have watched actual take-up of language instruction at school level ebb away. Not psychopathy, but quite likely neurosis: Estelle Morris, the minister who took the decision, subsequently resigned from the government, pleading inadequacy in skills of strategic management. Sadly, the management decisions she had taken, stood.

It may be unfair to blame an individual for yielding to a pressure that she did not create - but then again, a minister should be aware of the wide-ranging resonance of any decision they take. We expect our ministers to be made of sterner stuff.


But it is undeniable that foreign languages are the closest thing we provide in our school systems to an approach to alternative worlds, or at least world-views. Declaring them optional - and by implication, given the dynamics of school budgets, unaffordable - is to say that an attempt to understand others in their own terms is a luxury our education system cannot afford; that those other world-views are expendable.

But why pay for them when you can get them free, or at least without having to pay for basic oral instruction? The UK is like Australia in having large numbers of children entering school with a first language that is not English: here is a substantial source of other-world-lings, who given a favourable reception will be able to give all of us an insight of what the view is like from those other perspectives.

Yet when (on April 29) the statistics suggested that the proportion of such children is now more than one in seven, this was decried nation-wide as “a problem”, calling - like all politically-recognised problems, for “increased resources”. For some reason, our politicians - and supposedly, our public - are desperate to be reassured that all these new citizens will have a command of English, but indifferent whether they retain their linguistic links with the cultures of their families.

These alien backgrounds are the special resources - nowadays, you could almost say the selling-point - of these first- and second-generation immigrant children, and they deserve the chance to refine their understanding of them. Hell, everyone speaks English, don’t they?

This myopia, or rather this narcissism, about language skills - the view that our own are the only ones we need - is not original to the English-speaking world, in its fresh-faced dominance of the universe as it knows it. There was a time when Latin likewise was seen as a privileged vessel for knowledge and understanding. In 880 Pope John VIII wrote to Svątopluk, king of the Moravians: “In all the churches of your land the Gospel must be read in Latin because of its greater dignity, and afterwards it should be announced to those who do not understand Latin words in the Slav language.”

In 358 the great theologian Athanasius had claimed that a bishop summoned - by the emperor himself - from Cappadocia to take over the see of Milan was “an intruder rather than a Christian … as yet even ignorant of the Latin language, and unskilful in everything except impiety”.


It is in fact a none-too-subtle form of ethnocentric bullying. Listen to Valerius Maximus in the 1st century AD, congratulating the Roman magistrates who “persistently maintained the practice of replying only in Latin to the Greeks. And so they forced them to speak through interpreters, losing their linguistic fluency, their great strength, not just in our capital city but in Greece and Asia too, evidently to promote the honour of the Latin language throughout the world.”

But Latin had not always had the linguistic whip-hand. It had once had to assert itself over the solipsistic Greek dismissal of anything non-Greek as barbaros. Plato, in his Politicus, had seen the classification of the whole world into either Greek or barbaros as misleading - but he was in a minority.

Even the broad-minded Herodotus predicated his whole life’s work on the opposition Greeks versus barbaroi: and it appears he got his world knowledge through Greek alone, relying on a network of (unsung) Greek bilinguals. The 20th-century Greek Constantine Kavafis probably got it right when (in Waiting for the Barbarians, 1949) he saw the Greeks’ unending self-appointed struggle against the barbaroi as “some sort of a solution” - perhaps for a national neurosis.

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About the Author

Nicholas Ostler is the Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages He is the author of Ad Infinitum, a biography of Latin and Empires of the Word, a language history of the world. He lives in Bath, England.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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