David Cameron: ‘ditch French, learn Mandarin’ — a brief response

David Cameron ended his three-day visit to China last week by telling young people in the UK they should learn Mandarin Chinese as the language that will ‘seal tomorrow’s business deals’. His advice to educators was that pupils should move away from lessons in ‘traditional’ languages such as French and German, and instead focus on Chinese. The reporting on the speech picked up on the divisive, ‘either/or’ logic of the Prime Minister’s comments, and The Guardian summed up his message as: David Cameron urges British students to ditch French and learn Mandarin.

Given the purpose of his visit, Cameron’s motivation was primarily political, but he also cited Nelson Mandela on the wider value of language learning and its links to more general intercultural respect and understanding: “As Mandela once said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.'” Adrian Armstrong and I drafted the response below on behalf of the Association of University Professors and Heads of French and the Society for French Studies:


While welcoming the Prime Minister’s public support for the strategic value of learning languages, we are concerned that he has expressed this in potentially divisive terms, setting languages against each other in an apparent competition for learners (‘Abandon French and learn Mandarin, says PM’, 5 December). The fundamental problem is not that UK citizens are learning the wrong languages. Instead, the country’s long-term needs are better served by a strategy that fosters a general commitment to a broader range of languages for all, rather than assuming that the development of capacity in some areas must entail withdrawal from others. We are encouraged by the recent British Council report, ‘Languages for the Future’, that identifies both Mandarin Chinese and French, among others, as the world languages that are priorities for future national well-being in the UK. This well-being is much more than commercial. The point emerges clearly from the late Nelson Mandela’s words, as quoted by the Prime Minister: learning other languages prepares young people for democratic and global citizenship, wherever they may eventually choose to live and work. 


Professor Adrian Armstrong (President, Association of University Professors and Heads of French); Professor Charles Forsdick (President, Society for French Studies)


Cite this blog post
Charles Forsdick (2013, December 10). David Cameron: ‘ditch French, learn Mandarin’ — a brief response. Translating Cultures. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/utwg

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