It's not often the internet fails me but it has let me down on a historical matter of very present relevance. For I wanted to confirm that within living memory the Scottish universities demanded modest proficiency in a foreign language, modern or classical, as a condition of granting the certificate of fitness which was a shade more exalted than the 'group' which then constituted the Highers. I therefore trust my memory that there was a quite recent time when both access to university education and enjoyment of its bounty involved some familiarity with at least one foreign tongue.
None of the later generations of graduates in my family has ever heard of this certificate, nor, it seems, has the internet. But I can trace sundry lamentations about today's Scottish deficiencies in modern languages. I find calculations that the number of language teachers has fallen by nearly 20% since 2010 and that only about 15% of fifth-year pupils are now studying a foreign language. Far more of them than ever before go on to university but, in this important area of cultural development and personal endowment, far less seems expected of them, and far less is offered to them. The situation seems little better in the rest of Britain.
The Scottish government professes devotion to foreign languages and has ambitious, well-meaning, and probably impractical plans for all primary pupils to be introduced to two foreign languages. But there is an appalling contrast in secondary provision, not least in the areas where political correctness frets over under–achievement and inequality and political conditions consolidate both. Long decades ago my Glasgow east-end school offered French, German, Latin and Greek not just to Highers standard but beyond (for university bursary aspirants). Today one modern languages teacher is listed on its website and the curriculum offers only French. A similar situation, apart from a few 'taster lessons' in other languages, seems to apply in the two neighbouring non-denominational secondaries from whose present catchment areas my dear, diminished Whitehill once drew many pupils.
None of the blame for this falls on language teachers. They struggle not just against political neglect and hypocrisy (so evident in that contrast between primary aspiration and secondary provision) but against cultural assumptions and attitudes, some strong in the 'progressive' establishment which now orders devolved Scottish affairs and others among those whose 'deprivation' it deplores but does not remedy.
That establishment recoils from pressing anything, except possibly English and mathematics, on reluctant pupils and sympathetically offers Highers in such twin pillars of intellectual discipline as media and modern studies. I see my old school also offers 'travel and tourism' (apparently now only as a vocational course and not a Higher), which seems not to involve languages but such problems as the definition of 'tourist trip' and 'package holiday'.
But I know full well that those whom I consider deprived are not pining for German or fifth-year French, never mind Latin and Greek. I'm told some might just fancy a bit of Spanish for the bars and beaches but that there aren't teachers available. I fear many more are convinced that languages are boring and too difficult or not much use as 'they all speak English anyway'. That is a defensible attitude if our educational curriculum is defined only by what is vocationally and personally essential, together with what pupils might think useful or interesting. And these are decent criteria as far as they go.
What is lacking, however is a third necessary dimension, authoritative and even slightly authoritarian, of what ought to be included for its intrinsic value, cultural importance, and potential for future personal enhancement and enjoyment. That is why educated persons were once expected to have at least the 'little Latin and less Greek' attributed to Shakespeare and why, in modern conditions, a similar role should be defined for the major 'European' languages now spoken from Cape Horn to Vladivostok. Learning them has some value as a mental discipline and much more as an introduction to different ways of life and thought that contribute to a common civilisation.
This has nothing to do with the politics of Brexit and the EU, even if there is an evident contrast between the SNP's late-in-life love affair with Europe and their education policy's lukewarmness towards sustained study of its principal languages. Social, cultural, and economic factors are more constant than political ones.
Nor does it rest on any naïve assumption that those who get their French or German Highers will devote much later-life leisure to enjoyment of Racine, if that be possible, or even Goethe. A few, discovering that languages are for life and not just examinations, will find that (say) Voltaire's 'Candide' or Mann's 'Buddenbrooks' yield more pleasure in the original than in translation. Rather more will realise that a laptop and even a modest working knowledge of a language give instant access to the journalism, broadcasting, politics, and other entertainments of foreign countries, among them friends and allies whose perspectives, priorities, and ways of thought and laughter are different from ours and always liable to be slightly lost or unconsciously distorted in translation.
Most of us will never grasp all the idioms and subtleties but we can see how others see themselves – and sometimes how they see us. All of us who have been given a thorough grounding in a language, preferably including its grammatical perversities as well as its poetic cadences, have an asset whose value remains even if it is only put to occasional use. Not the least value is that those who have come to grips with one or two languages are less intimidated by other stranger ones which they may need, if only at phrase-book level, in some place where it turns out they don't 'all speak English anyway'.
I accept that even cursory chatter in the primary schools can bring some part of these advantages and that the younger one starts the better by far it is for accent and fluency. I've also met people who took up languages in middle age, for pleasure and with determination, and are more at ease in them than most of us with our fading and mislaid certificates. Even more do I admire those who have even managed to start and persevere in a new language to keep alert in old age. And I envy those youngsters who like languages and thrive in the audio-opportunities of this electronic age.
But from bitter-sweet personal experience I testify to the value of old-fashioned systematic teaching of the kind expected by the scrutineers of those long-vanished university 'certificates of fitness'. For there is a painful contrast between the relative ease with which I can read even the strangest political or artistic effusions in the languages I learned in school and the decay of what I had struggled to pick up, out of necessity or utility, in some others. My Russian alphabet has reverted to guess-work, my Czech will now scarcely buy me a beer, and I seem to have lost the threads which once let me tackle Italian source-material for a book I was writing or stumble through episodes of 'Don Quixote' in the original.
Yet even the memory of these flutterings and failures brings some encouragement. They remind me of what was worth trying and of how much motivation matters in language learning. Britain's trouble with languages, especially acute in Scotland, is that we lack the immediate economic motivation which urges millions of people in even the poorest countries to tackle such strange and difficult tongues as English.
What we need is a different kind of motivation – a renewed emphasis on all-round education, including languages, as a personal asset and not just an economic one. The Scottish government pays lip-service to that idea (in the literal sense as well as a figurative one) in the ambitious plans for modern languages in primary schools. But it seems indifferent to the decline and threatened fall of much that once distinguished Scottish secondary education. Those who banished selectivity (except for expensive independent schools) have in some matters reduced both accessibility and encouragement. They deny opportunities to the ablest and they have too often dumbed down when they thought were levelling up.