Breaking down barriers: why do we classify some languages as ‘community’ and others as ‘modern’?

Professor Li Wei

Professor Li Wei, a leading scholar in the interdisciplinary field of applied linguistics and language education, is director and dean of the UCL Institute of Education.

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It is claimed that, on average, one in five of school-aged children in Britain have a first language other than English (The Guardian). These languages are often labelled as ‘community languages’ with many of them identified as the ‘languages for the future’ (British Council) in terms of supply and demand.For instance, the top ten ‘languages for the future’ are Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian, all of which are spoken in communities in Britain. Yet, as the Guardian article and numerous reports point out, support for the community languages in the UK education system, from early years to further and higher education, is seriously lacking.

Part of the problem is the labelling. Languages that are part of the school and university curriculum are usually called ‘modern languages’, ‘foreign languages’, or ‘modern foreign languages’. Some of the community languages (eg Italian, Mandarin Chinese) are part of the school curriculum, but most are not. The classification of which language is a modern language for schools, and which is a community language seems somewhat arbitrary and largely a result of the history of language teaching in this country. It is also connected to Britain’s relationship with and attitudes towards the rest of the world. Languages of immigrants from outside Europe are community languages, whereas those from within Europe are modern languages.

For a post-Brexit Britain coming out of a global pandemic, it is high time to critically reflect whether such classifications are still necessary and useful. The language curriculum for schools and universities should be broadened to include community languages. We must not forget that many of the so-called community languages in Britain (eg Arabic, Portuguese, Russian) are major national and international languages. We need to have a global perspective on languages. The inclusion of community languages in the education system can also have the added benefits of enhancing community cohesion by valuing the languages of minoritised groups.

In the meantime, a word of caution is needed with regards to the identification of languages as ‘languages for the future’. It is usually done on the perceived roles specific languages play in the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world. While that may be a laudable objective, it could potentially lead to a pecking order of usefulness among different languages, with some being regarded as more useful, and therefore will receive more institutional support, than others. The ongoing controversy over the Mandarin and Latin Excellence Programmes for schools in England shows competing views on the purpose of language learning. A Global Britain needs to invest in upgrading and expanding its multilingual capacity. And that should begin by showing respect for the multilingual talents we have in the array of languages that members of different communities in the country already use.

This article originally appeared on the UCL Institute of Education Blog.

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