Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

“I learnt my Italian at the Adult Education Centre in Medway”: languages and adult learners

Kelly Tolhurst, MP, businesswoman and adult learner

Kelly Tolhurst, MP, businesswoman and adult learner

Kelly Tolhurst, the Member of Parliament for Rochester and Strood, recently explained the importance to her of learning another language. Working in marine services, she found herself dealing with Italian firms, where her language skills had a business pay-off. She also enjoys watching the Italian TV detective series Montalbano.

And how did she learn this important skill? “I learnt my Italian at the Adult Education Centre in Medway over 10 years”. Fair play to her: that’s a long haul, and learning another language – even one as beautiful as Italian – is work, real hard work.

Yet however hard-working, persistent and competent the learner, it’s virtually impossible to develop language competence without support. The attack on adult education across Britain has eradicated much provision – an attack often accompanied by politicians’ jibes about adult learners’ frivolous interests – and many adult modern language courses have disappeared.

So I was delighed to see that Medway Council’s Adult and Community Learning Service still offers four Italian classes and a Saturday morning ‘conversation cafe’ at its centre in Rochester – and much else besides. Just imagine what the sneerers would say about even a penny of public funding going towards a ‘conversation cafe’ in Italian.

I very much hope that Kelly Tolhurst, who is clearly a woman who knows her own mind, will share her views with the next politician to jeer at people who fail to show the properly serious and vocational mindset when tackling a foreign language.

Social inequality and modern languages

What are the chances of working in Paris?

What are the chances of working in Paris?

During the last few weeks, the Scottish Government has faced growing criticism for its perceived neglect of modern languages. Business leaders and European government representatives have lined up to lament the decline of foreign language teaching in Scotland’s schools.

One newspaper estimated that the number of pupils taking a foreign language Higher had fallen by a quarter over 20 years, with particularly acute falls in French and German.

In turn, this has inevitably affected demand for University courses. Several institutions have shut down language degrees, or even whole departments. And one knock-on effect is that fewer language graduates are available to become language teachers, with obvious results for the schools and colleges.

Nor are there opportunities for people to catch up later on. On the contrary: part-time courses in colleges have been derided as ‘leisure courses’ (as though it were somehow improper to enjoy learning something as useless as Spanish or Mandarin), with massive reductions in the number of part-time and evening courses available.

As a result, increasingly the provision of foreign language teaching has become privatised. Despite the fact that only 5 or 6 per cent of Scots children are in private schools, the Scotsman estimated that the private sector accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German and 18 per cent of Italian.

Meanwhile second chance adult learners are increasingly faced with a choice between private providers (including online providers like Busuu) and voluntary providers like the U3A.

Scotland is hardly alone: the number of first year undergraduates in foreign languages in the UK fell by 6% over the seven years up to 2013/14. Nor is it new: the Royal Society of Edinburgh was warning of the problem a decade ago.

But what is striking is that Scotland’s Government – always fond of parading its progressive credentials – seems oblivious to the long term implications of its policies for modern languages. Stated simply, those who master a foreign language are more likely to feel confident and communicate clearly in multi-cultural settings; they are empowered. Those who are monolingual are more likely to feel uncertain and anxious in multi-cultural settings, and to seek out the company of their monolingual peers; they are disempowered.

Ask yourself this question: Which of these two groups will thrive in our increasingly cosmpolitan and globalised world, and which will find its options narrowed? And why on earth have successive governments, across the UK, done so little to tackle this obvious source of long term inequality and inefficiency.