Unseen Text: Our failure to speak foreign languages should shame us.
Text Type: Opinion Column
Guiding Question: Comment on the arguments and techniques the writer uses to convince and entertain his audience.
Every Paper 1 text comes with a guiding question to help focus your planning and encourage you to write a worthwhile analysis. However, it is not compulsory to use the guiding question. This response goes one better – you can challenge the guiding question should your reading of the text lead you to a different understanding. One of the Lang and Lit guiding conceptual questions asks you to think about how the same text can be understood differently by different readers. This answer disputes the idea that the given text is ‘entertaining’ with thoughtful consideration of who might be reading it. As ever, this is only one approach; your own analysis and evaluation can be equally valid.
This extract is an opinion piece written by Michael Hoffman and published in The Observer, a Sunday newspaper in the UK. His topic is the learning of foreign languages in Britain. Hoffman complains about the way language lessons have been marginalised in schools and criticises the reluctance of English people to learn a foreign language. In order to support his argument, he develops several lines of thoughtful reasoning, presents some surprising statistics, and writes in a strident, forceful tone. I would argue, though, that while I enjoyed reading his opinion piece, it is not conventionally entertaining – at least not for certain readers. I feel that British people who already speak a foreign language would identify with the arguments he puts forward; whereas people who do not speak a foreign language may feel overly attacked. Nevertheless, there are elements of style that might appeal to both of these hypothetical readers, such as the amusing metaphors about the sad state of British education.
A convincing argument Hoffman makes is when discussing the reasons why people may or may not learn foreign languages. He discards ‘utilitarian’ (or instrumental) reasons such as ‘to be able to order a beer in a foreign country.’ He calls economic reasons ‘vulgar’ and appeals to the notion that the motivation for learning can be intrinsic: ‘it’s that you are not making enough of your individual potential if you allow yourself to be enclosed by one language.’ This line is delivered directly to the reader (‘you’) which is a feature of the whole text. Frequent direct address delivers a challenge to the reader, and sometimes the tone is forceful, such as ‘if you don’t have another language you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life.’ The word ‘condemned’ compares to the word ‘enclosed’ in the previous sentence, as if speaking only one language is a kind of prison sentence. This metaphor is extended through the whole text and can be seen in choices of words such as ‘cage’, ‘encased’, and ‘narrowness.’
Figurative language is a stylistic feature that Hoffman employs more than once and is part of what makes his writing somewhat entertaining. He uses metaphor to criticise British education in strong terms: ‘Education is a field hospital, where the little troops are patched up and… sent to fight in the great economic war.’ In Hoffman’s mind, schooling is preparation for an ‘economic war’ in which children are recruited to fight like soldiers. Anything not directly contributary to the war effort, like learning foreign languages, is deemed of little value. This time, he doesn’t address the reader but attacks national government policy instead. The text develops an opposition between economic values supported by official policy (‘schmooze your foreign boss’; ‘force and market’; ‘international polity’) and the true value of languages; for example, ‘languages are some of the oldest, deepest, most thoughtful human inventions.’ He speaks of language learning in terms of ‘joy and richness’ and locates values such as ‘respect… mutuality, courtesy, fair exchange, good practice.’ An important word is ‘civilised’ – and British readers are put in the uncomfortable position of having a historic national quality questioned and challenged.
Hoffman uses other stylistic features associated with persuasive texts to convince the reader. He asks questions such as, ‘How much respect does that allow? How can you hope to understand others while requiring them to speak to you in their English?’ Chaining questions together makes him sound frustrated, as if the answer if self-evident to him, but not to ‘you’, the reader who only speaks English. Tricolons are conventionally persuasive and Hoffman gives us patterns of three including, ‘It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself… It’s harder to play.’ In this example he takes ‘doubt’, something that might be considered a drawback, and suggests it is actually a strength. The text is thoughtful and emotional, but towards the end he employs statistics to convince his reader to abandon an ethnocentric world view when it comes to foreign languages: ‘English is spoken by just 7% of the world’s inhabitants; 75% of people speak no English.’ These statistics support his argument that those who only speak English trap themselves in a much narrower version of life than they might be aware.
So adamant is the writer that his position seems unassailable. Although the column includes ‘banal’ excuses, he always dismisses or demolishes reasons for not learning another language. At the end of the piece he says ‘call it what you like,’ as if trying to bring the reader onside through concession. But, overall, his tone is unforgiving. He accuses those of disagreeing with him of ‘disdain’, ‘disrespect’, ‘cluelessness’ and of being ‘wildly irresponsible.’ Although I agree with him, I can see that one drawback of this text is that it never relents in its attack on the ‘other’ side, never allows any debate. The end of the text, ‘a terminal and blazingly wrong conceit,’ exemplifies this tendency. ‘Blazingly wrong’ seems to shut down discussion, as if there’s no alternative to the writer’s vision. Finally, the word ‘terminal’ means ‘the end,’ as if there is nowhere further to go, and nothing more to be said.
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