A recent article in the increasingly indispensable International New York Times served as a reminder that as well as being the world’s most valuable trading bloc, the European Union is also in many senses a cultural project. Back in 2002, executive leaders of the EU’s member states posited a linguistic objective: for at least two foreign languages to be taught to the children of the European Union ‘from a very early age’. This target has become known as ‘M+2’, with the ‘M’ standing for mother tongue. With the gradual expansion of the bloc over time, this goal has assumed especial importance: the EU is presently constituted of 28 countries of no less than 24 official languages; moreover, the current youth unemployment situation in some EU member states makes the capacity to work in another language particularly compelling.
However, despite many years having passed since the promulgation of M+2, the data on the ground suggests that this objective is far from being reached. A 2011 survey of 14 European countries showed that only 42% of 15-year-olds could hold a conversation in a language that was not their native one. From 2007 to 2013, the European Commission has spent about €50m per annum on language learning projects, but this is a drop in the ocean in comparison to some of the EU’s other financial commitments; the commissioner responsible for multilingualism, Androulla Vassiliou, has arguably not done as much to advance the multilingualism agenda as she could have done.
So what should the European Union do to help meet the M+2 goal? After some contemplation, we believe that the following three steps should help in raising linguistic standards amongst students across the bloc:
- Invest in Better Textbooks. Language textbooks – with a few notable exceptions – are some of the worst educational tools around. More often than not, they are dry as well as being uncomprehensive: inadequate presentation and poor technical specifications abound. Conversely, the textbook industry in Japan is extraordinarily dynamic and speaks to children in a language they love: manga. There has already been some cross-pollination in other subjects, with English- and German-language manga guides on domains of knowledge such as statistics and physics proving wildly popular amongst certain subcultures, but very few educators and publishers have realised just how effective and popular this type of learning can be.
- Stress Fun – Not Stress. Learning another language can be extraordinarily stressful, as the some of the most essential elements of one’s universe – familiar words and grammar structures – are no longer available to lean on. Yet most learning materials in this sector compound this feeling. They do not introduce language through fun and interesting topics which are likely to be useful in the students’ own lives; instead, they punish students with a whole new layer of obstructive jargon which is virtually guaranteed to drain any joy out of the experience.
- Encourage Quality Time. With electronic technology having attained ‘all-pervasive’ status over the last generation or so, quality time between students and their parents has become dominated by devices – conversation is at a premium, and entire weeks can pass without a single complex intergenerational interaction. Doing everything possible to highlight the monumental irrationality of this trend should make students more confident with language more generally; many students now struggle even with their native language.