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The crisis of language testing — in some ways symptomatic of all the other problems the UK is facing — has oddly come to center stage and revealed a new twist. 

British academics in the field of language learning have being crying foul concerning the official, national testing and scoring system used for pre-university students who have chosen to study a modern language. They complain that the “exams regulator in England, Ofqual, is ‘killing off’ modern languages by failing to address the excessive difficulty of language GCSE and A-level exams.”

After the recent cheating scandal concerning adult language tests for immigrants, it would appear that Britain has a serious problem with the very notion of “other languages than English” and that the trend is worsening. The linguists who are protesting the severity of the test and decrying its impact on learner motivation have expressed their concern that post-Brexit Britain may no longer conform to the ideal of “an outward-looking, global nation.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Outward looking:

Bucking the historical trend toward intense narcissism, equally at the individual psychological level and at the political and cultural level 

Contextual note

Could the attitude toward languages, the increasingly confused melodrama of Brexit and the cultural effects of political populism be related? Unless one supposes that the academics are simply paranoid and see in the national institutions a conspiracy to eliminate their discipline, presumably to save money, there could be a very good reason to identify a deeper trend that goes beyond the mere choice of strategies for testing.

In the two major and still culturally dominant English-speaking nations, the US and the UK, most people not only spontaneously believe that English is the only “real” language of humanity, but they expect foreigners to believe that as well. The French are hardly different, who notoriously believe that French is the natural language of humanity. Knowing that English has become the international lingua franca for business and tourism, native English speakers see little reason to arrive at any kind of operational conversational ability in another language. To some extent, education, even when promoting foreign languages, has traditionally made a similar mistake. It tends to focus on the ability to read texts rather than develop communication skills.

This has led to two possible attitudes from government and educational authorities. One is to innovate pedagogically to correct the trend and try to find new ways that will get people to understand the interest of opening up and looking outward to other languages and cultures. The other is to say, cynically, that the world manages decently without having to worry about other languages and, therefore, investing education pounds or dollars in languages is an inefficient use of stretched resources.

Needless to say, in a culture that puts management principles focused on productivity far above cultural and ethical principles, the cynics tend to get their way. Add to that the mood of populations in rudderless democracies where they are tempted — in the hope of seeing simplistic solutions to their complex problems — to vote for a Brexit referendum with unknown dimensions or a president whose brain functions are programmed by hyperreality, and clearly government and educational authorities themselves will fail to appreciate the vital role of cultural and linguistic diversity in any healthy society.

And why does all the drama focus on testing rather than learning? The answer to that reveals the depth of the problem. We live in a culture guided by the need for measurement, even the obsession of measuring things that have no physical dimension. And to what end? To justify the only consideration that matters: cost. It’s the rule of the bottom line, which means that assets must be identified, measured and accounted for. That facilitates decision-making, which — whether it concerns education or climate change — will always go in the same direction: opting for the solution that reduces any cost that can’t be justified by immediate, tangible and increasingly material productivity. Cultural quality and harmonious human relations are bound to be the losers.

Historical note

Has the UK ever been an outward-looking nation? That may sound like a surprising question about an empire on which the sun never set. But what does outward looking really mean? The academics cited in the article make the standard claim, promoted as a kind of general ideal: “Giving more young people the chance to learn foreign languages helps broaden their horizons and will ensure this country remains an outward-looking, global nation.”

The question that then arises for governments and educational authorities is: How broad should anyone’s horizon be and to what purpose? An empire looks outward see what objects and wealth it can acquire and control that it doesn’t dispose of domestically. Call it the acquisitive version of the virtue of “looking outward.” The academics believe that looking outward to “broaden your horizons” means enriching yourself through contact with other cultures, their values, ideas and traditions. It’s less about acquiring than inspiring, where creativity and empathy trump mere possession.

The capitalist West continued for centuries to promote the idea that its outward-looking activities were more about inspiration than acquisition. But late-phase capitalism has dropped that pretense. Testing and obtaining grades have replaced learning as the aim of education, and the grades permit those in power to separate the wheat from the chaff in the faux meritocratic name of efficiency. Does it matter that the tests, organized around codified knowledge, have little to do with the levels of actual performance involving complex behavior they claim to differentiate?

The answer is resoundingly “no.” The tests permit the organization of new class divisions and little else. Once the best test-takers make it through, they can develop in their own time and space the skills that the tests were never intended to evaluate. In the case of the British language tests, seen as both difficult and inappropriate, they play their intended role of reducing the numbers of that particular class through the effect of discouragement, if not despair: first the learners and then the staff.

In its way, it’s a model of efficiency. But the less the UK manages to communicate “outwardly” — which means to have the capacity to reassure, implicate, encourage, involve and grow together with others — the more it will achieve its narcissistic goal of celebrating itself and not bothering about the rest of the world, except in the interest of acquisition. But without empathy, respect and involvement, acquisition will become more and more problematic.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect everydaymax’s editorial policy.

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