By Tristan Wilson, Head of Modern Languages
Sunday 26 September marks the 20th European Day of Languages – a celebration of the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe – and to mark the occasion, the @bedaleslanguages Instagram account will be running competitions for Bedales students.
Europe’s linguistic and cultural diversity is quite remarkable. I still remember the Eurostar opening its first service between Waterloo and Paris when I was in my teens, and it transformed everything. Whereas up until then France had been a faraway place requiring a flight, a lengthy ferry ride, or a hovercraft ride (cancelled at the whim of the weather), you could now get on a train and be surrounded by anothe rlanguage within a couple of hours. From Paris or Brussels you could be surrounded by other languages still, within another hour or two of a connecting train. On a three-day trip from London to Moscow by rail you are exposed to English, French, Flemish, German, Polish, Belorussian and Russian.
In the era of COVID, many of these opportunities for travel have diminished due to the headache-inducing formalities and costs of proving your freedom from infection. Nevertheless, foreign languages are so much closer to us islanders than they used to be. Gone are the days of bringing back VHS tapes from the continent that only played in grainy black and white. Through online streaming platforms to language apps, languages are now fully accessible. Language and culture are so heavily intertwined that to celebrate linguistic diversity is to celebrate cultural diversity. If the whole of Europe spoke English, what would the effect be on European culture? Would we get such visible cultural differences between France and Italy, say? With free movement, the greatest markers of national boundaries are languages.
Brexit, as well as French and German A Level uptake in freefall on a national level, reductions in the numbers of European language undergraduates, and a lack of recognition of the importance of languages all point to a crisis in language learning. Sadly languages are often seen purely as a bonus commodity, a pathway to business opportunities that can be circumnavigated with English – but languages are so much more than that. The Day of European Languages is an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of geographical Europe (not the political Europe), something which a lack of free and easy travel to Europe for pleasure could lead us to forget, were it not for the internet.