On being European. Or: where is Iceland?

I love Iceland, a country of majestic and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty. On most criteria, it is also a good place to live. In the OECD’s Better Life Index, Iceland ranks at the top in jobs and earnings, and above the average in social connections, subjective well-being, health status, environmental quality, personal security, and education and skills.

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A volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area, and cold enough in June for me to need a hat. Shortly after this photo was taken, though, a naked couple jumped in for a swim.

But is it European? This thought originally struck me during the global wave of laughter that greeted England’s humilating defeat by Iceland in the Euros. Don’t think I have the slightest interest in soccer, because I don’t. And I’m certainly not demanding that the Euros be replayed just because Iceland isn’t really European.

This isn’t a matter of EU membership. Europe is not identical with the European Union, and it is perfectly possible to be European and outside the EU.It’s ironic, though, that newspapers and others greeted England’s ignominious defeat with cries of “Brexit2”, conveniently forgetting that Wales was still in the tournament while Iceland had never been in the EU.

Then I remembered visiting the area around Þingvellir (or Thingvellir), a marvellous national park that includes a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means that Rejkyavik, and therefore most of Iceland’s population, live in America rather than Europe.

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Not that this geological argument carries much weight with Icelanders, who like to think of themselves as Europeans and definitely not Americans. That got me brooding on why they might think of themselves in this way. And why so many other nations seem to be really keen to enjoy such symbolic markers of Europeanness as – wait for it now – the Eurovision song contest.

I enjoy a bit of pedantry; it can be a lot of fun. In this case, though, the question of Iceland leads me to ask what we mean when we say we are ‘European’, and who we then define as the non-European. The non-European unperson can be the refugee facing the enormous steel fences that Europe (= EU) is erecting along its borders, or the supposedly uneducated and insular Sun-reading cultural dopes who voted for Brexit.

The ‘European’ by contrast is cultivated and cosmopolitan. In a piece of desperately bad timing – or good, depending on your point of view – one academic published a piece in mid-June that celebrated the European (=EU) student mobility programmes as the modern Grand Tour.Well, Erasmus+ schemes certainly take the most privileged full-time, young, white undergraduates, though that wasn’t what he meant to pount out.

This world view rather neatly encapsulates a certain condescending mindset, which celebrates the cultural and educational construction of a cosmopolitan elite, the winners of the Euro-globalisation race. By contrast, the ‘other’ – the loser from globalisation – is constructed as brutish, stupid, and hopelessly provincial.

 

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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.