In the piece by David Bell elsewhere in this issue, a number of lines from an 18th-century French poem are quoted fearlessly in the original. At one time, the question of whether or not to translate them would never have arisen, the editors of a paper like this assuming that a sufficiently high proportion of its readers were comfortable with French for a translation to be both patronising and redundant. That's no longer automatically the case: the question tends now at least to get raised. It's a pity it should be so, but assumptions in respect of knowledge of other languages are a lot less confident than they used to be, certainly when it comes to how much knowledge even of French there might be among younger readers. The A-level figures that were published last month showed what we've come to expect: that the numbers of schoolchildren doing languages is dropping year by year. The sum of those who try for a grade in French has gone down from more than 21,000 in 1999 to just under 18,000 this year, and the figures for other languages are dismal in total and also in decline. This evidence that the future's here, the future's monoglot, coincided neatly with increasingly serious suggestions that those waiting to be treated by the NHS should speed things up by going abroad to the European countries which have hospital beds to spare. Which is one way the numbers of young people doing French or German might be bumped up, by promising them that they'll be right glad of their language A-level when they see a voluble, monoglot French or German doctor coming down the ward. Perhaps that's why the Government claims to be encouraging more children to take languages as far as GCSE: it's cheaper than training doctors.
LRB 6 September 2001 | PDF Download