Plus ça change: the British and foreign languages

In 2013 a survey for the British Council found that three out of four adults in the UK could not have a conversation in Spanish, French or other foreign language.  There were calls for more language teaching in schools and colleges. Our inability to speak other languages and our apparent reluctance to try have serious economic and cultural consequences, said the British Council.  Businesses miss trading opportunities, and we all miss chances to experience other cultures.


Plus ça change, you might (be unable to) say.  The findings of the 2013 research are, sadly, not new: there have been many such reports over the years.  Back in 1929, in their regular Books and Readers bulletin, Sheffield Libraries discussed a report of the time.

Education for Salesmanship. The charge has often been made that the British manufacturer is steadily losing his grip on foreign markets, and we wish to draw attention here to “The Interim Report of the Committee on Education for Salesmanship – British Marketing Overseas,” which has just been added to the Commercial and Technical Department. … It has been formulated by a Committee of some thirty leading business authorities and its suggestions are worthy of deep consideration.

Deficient Knowledge of Foreign Languages. This was a subject of very special inquiry by the Committee, and they report that “we agree with one witness in thinking that in view of the increasing severity of foreign competition, alike as regards trading and technical skill, the acquisition of foreign languages has long passed the luxury or drawing room stage, and their study will determine to some extent the future measure of British overseas trade prosperity.”

The report goes on to stress the importance of having catalogues and prices compiled for foreign markets in the language of the country to be traded with and in terms of the weights and measures in local use.  … Yet a large number of British Firms attempting to do, or actually doing business … display a strange insistence on writing to their customers in English.”

The final summing up of the Report, as follows, is particularly challenging. “If we were asked what our evidence shows to be, broadly speaking, the outstanding weakness in British marketing overseas, we should answer:- A detached and insular attitude and unscientific practice – relics of the time, long past, when we enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the world’s markets for manufactured goods.”

The article in Books and Readers goes on to ‘draw the attention of the people of Sheffield to [the library’s] comprehensive selection of books on modern marketing methods, salesmanship, advertising, etc…’

Help available for learning languages is also described.

Language Talks, at Hillsborough and Walkley Branches.  As regards the need for better language training may we also point out that all the City Libraries stock good books on the major languages, especially from the commercial angle, and in the Central Lending Library there are in addition continually growing collections of reading matter in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Learning the written languages, however, is only half the battle and the need for actual training in the spoken language needs to be met.  There are two active mechanical agencies in this work: the gramophone and the wireless.

A early Philips wireless from 1931. Were the Sheffield Libraries' models something like this? (Creative Commons licence)

A early Philips wireless from 1931. Were the Sheffield Libraries’ models something like this? (Creative Commons licence)

The Library does not yet stock gramophone records, but it is making an attempt by means of wireless to help students to attain a knowledge of French, German and Spanish as spoken and written to-day.  The Walkley and Hillsborough Libraries have special rooms set aside for Wireless Discussion purpose*, and these rooms are available to language students on the evenings when language talks are broadcast.  The set is a three-valve Philip’s [sic] All-Mains, and the tone of the loud-speaker is particularly good.  For the information of students we give the [BBC] programme for the next three months:

Walkley Mondays (2LO#) 7.25-7.45 p.m.
French by M.E.M. Stéphan Jan. 27th; Feb. 10th; 24th; March 10th; 24th; April 7th.
Spanish by Dr. A. R. Pastor Jan. 20th; Feb. 3rd; 17th; March 3rd; 17th; 31st.
Hillsborough Wednesdays (5GB#) 8.0 – 8.30 p.m.
German Language Talks by Mr. O. Siepmann. Weekly, January 22nd to April 9th


* Wireless Discussion Groups were a BBC initiative of the 1920s and 1930s.  Libraries welcomed groups of people to listen to one or more set programmes and to discuss them afterwards.

# 2LO was a BBC London station in the 1920s.  5GB, based at Daventry, became the BBC’s National Programme from the late 1920s.