Lesser-Taught Languages

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 24th March 2015.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 7:03 pm, 24th March 2015

I will not detain the House for long. I have a declaration: I am probably the only Member of this House with a degree in Serbo-Croat, and I studied Russian as well at

A-level. I therefore have a strong love of languages that are probably not the most well-known ones, but it is important that they are taught.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick de Bois on securing this debate. He is a doughty champion for all his constituents, but on this occasion particularly for those who have these languages and their families. This is very important: it is important for their culture, and it is important for business and many other reasons, but it is also important because when people who might not even have family links learn those languages and then go on business trips and so forth, they learn about the culture of the place. They can then read things and learn a lot more. They are far better equipped to talk to people in those countries and those who are here, and that is incredibly important.

This is also a matter of politeness. Anybody can learn a few words of a language. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North was being modest when he said that he could not speak much French. The ability to speak just a few basic words can open doors. If people are learning these languages, we should encourage them by giving them a qualification. I entirely agree that we should not be cutting the study of these minor languages; we should be encouraging more of them to be taught. Stephen Timms mentioned Albanian. I have become involved in the fight against modern slavery, and it is important that when I go to countries such as Albania and Slovakia I can at least understand what people are saying. We should be encouraging more people to learn these languages.

We have not mentioned intelligence work. We never know when we are suddenly going to need native speakers, for whatever reason. I never thought, when I studied Serbo-Croat, that the events in Yugoslavia were going to happen. It was just a rather nice backwater in the Balkans at the time, but we saw what eventually happened there. These matters are incredibly important.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I will shortly be taking our leave of this place. You no longer have the opportunity to speak in debates as I do, but I should like to put on record my thanks to you for all that you have done in the House. I also want to plug my old college, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, which is now part of University college London. It offers excellent evening courses in all these different languages and, as I am about to have more time on my hands, I might well start to learn some of them.

A few years ago, courses were offered in the House of Commons. Perhaps you participated in them, Madam Deputy Speaker. They consisted of two-hour sessions, and I remember that Tom Brake, who is now the Deputy Leader of the House, was learning Portuguese. I think he was brought up in Portugal. I did Punjabi, which has helped me ever since. I can now say to my Sikh businessmen in Punjabi that I am called John Randall. That opens doors for me everywhere. The fact that I have a beard, and until recently had a shop, has also helped.

Our country cannot afford not to encourage the teaching of these languages. As for the Poles, we should be doing everything we can, because they are an important trading partner. Poles have been in my constituency since the second world war, and they have given so much to this country. It is the least we can do to ensure that their children and grandchildren can learn their language and learn about their country and their culture.