A needle in a haystack? Seeking languages in government

by Wendy Ayres-Bennett

In October 2015 we organised the first National Languages Workshop in Cambridge, with help from the Cambridge Strategic Research Initiative in Public Policy and the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). It comprised an open session in the morning with a series of presentations from representatives of different government departments, and a closed session under Chatham House rules in the afternoon. As a result, we produced a policy document, the Value of Languages.

What this simple description fails to capture is the amount of work it took, both before and since the workshop, to identify the appropriate person to contact in different government departments. Some cases were relatively simple: Ofsted and Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) are cases in point. The Department for Education also posed no problems, although it may come as a surprise that the person responsible for languages has a number of other subjects in his portfolio. Other government departments – including those where I knew that the work of translators and interpreters, for instance, was important – initially reacted to my request to talk to someone responsible for languages with either an initial denial that languages featured at all in that Ministry, or uncertainty as to whom I should speak. Languages are everywhere and nowhere in government. They are vital to numerous departments such as the Home Office or the Department for Communities and Local Government, but civil servants rarely identify languages as being central to their portfolio. But someone with a portfolio focussed, for instance, on immigration and integration cannot avoid thinking about the role of languages.

The second surprise was that the Cambridge workshop was the first time many of the participants had met each other. This was not true of those concerned with defence and security, but this group seemed to work more or less separately from other areas. A positive sign has been the recent appointment of a Champion for languages based in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would be good if there could also be a Chief Government Linguist and a Minister with responsibility for languages to give languages more visibility and to put them higher on the political agenda.

The event was also innovative in including representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the devolved regions it seems language policy is somewhat better coordinated. For instance, in the case of Scotland, those responsible for Modern Foreign Languages, the indigenous languages (Scottish Gaelic and Scots), English as an Additional Language (EAL), and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) all know each other. With Scotland rolling out its ‘Mother Tongue + 2’ policy and Wales its ‘Bilingualism + 1’ policy, England could have much to learn from the devolved administrations, both in terms of policy and the difficulties of implementation.

Modern Linguists, unlike historians, have often been slow to engage with policy issues. MEITS hopes to remedy this through a number of policy workshops and briefings, as well as through its recently launched online journal, Languages, Society and Policy, which presents peer-reviewed research in accessible and non-technical language to policymakers, journalists and stakeholders in education, health, business and elsewhere.

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