Lesser-Taught Languages

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 24th March 2015.

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Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North 6:35 pm, 24th March 2015

My hon. Friend rightly makes a suggestion that I will be reinforcing to the Minister a little later. He is right. The Government’s job, and our job, is to lead. I know from questions I have tabled to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education that they would rightly echo the sentiments he has expressed and which I am sure others in the Chamber hold regarding the value and importance of these qualifications. With a new Parliament, perhaps we can put some oomph—that will be an interesting one for Hansard—into backing up what we aspire to deliver.

As is evident today, there are cross-party calls, led by the all-party group on modern languages, for the political commitment to which my hon. Friend has referred. I think it is also a political commitment to transforming the reputation of the UK as essentially poor linguists. I was blessed in that my father was in the Royal Air Force, so I lived and travelled in many locations overseas. I found it quite hard to learn a modern language overseas. For many years we were in Holland, and as the Dutch told me, “We are all learning English because no one is really keen to learn Dutch.” I am not sure that that is necessarily the case now, but because we were English, we were inherently gifted by the fact that so many people wanted to learn English. That is not the way of the world now—in an ever-changing world and an ever-changing global market. I do not want Britain to be seen as a country that is reluctant to value languages other than English.

The all-party parliamentary group rightly set out other important aims—for example, to ensure that every child achieves a high-quality language qualification by the end of their secondary education. Indeed, that is an ambition that other countries do not need themselves, as many of them are on the way to achieving it. I think it right for exam boards to seek to review their policy, which is in my opinion short-termist and taken in isolation of the needs of business and in isolation of the wider UK skills level training for the future.

As the APPG rightly recognises, the commitment to, and the status of, modern languages are strategically important, yet this move, along with the wider concerns about the take-up of modern languages, make our position more vulnerable now and for the future. As the UK becomes more diverse, with a growing diaspora from many different countries, we should not lose sight of the unique opportunity to build closer cultural, diplomatic and business relationships with countries of origin.

Let me explain. In Enfield North, I have a very mixed population, with strong, well-established second and third generations of Turkish-speaking communities, Greek Cypriot communities, south-east Asian and Polish communities, to name but a few. Indeed, it was interesting to find out from my research that Polish is the second most commonly spoken language in the UK. This is not a reason, in my opinion, to abandon the A-level, but a case to ensure that we encourage the second and third-generation Polish people to become the entrepreneurs, academics and diplomats for the UK and to ensure that we help Poland to do more business with the UK. That is surely the role of modern languages—to secure the qualification, to get it recognised as a qualification that is utterly distinct from what people might learn in the home and to allow people to use languages to progress and develop the careers they need. If I sound as if I know what I am talking about at all, it is down to the discussions I have had on this subject with my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski. It is also worth noting that Poland is currently the UK’s ninth largest export market. That is surely something that we should tap into more.