I hear some good news today. I am not talking about Dortmund’s latest victory against Hoffenheim. Dortmund against Hoffenheim is always the closest thing to a bar fight that you’ll ever see on a football field and today is no exception. I hear my bit of good news before the kickoff.
I am talking to a father and son. The son is sixteen years old today. Which part of Dortmund are they from? Bethnall Green of course.
“He’s legal over here” says Dad. I know what he means but you probably don’t.
“He’s legal” means that he is permitted under German law to purchase alcohol. Well beer and wine anyway; to be able to purchase spirits he must be eighteen as he would have to be in Britain. To celebrate, Dad has decided to sponsor a trip to Dortmund on the condition that his son buy him a pint.
“We’re both Iron” continues Dad “but he’s more European.”
Again, I should translate. This is football talk.
“The Iron” refers to West Ham United, the pride — perhaps confusingly — of London’s East End. “European” is not a political statement and nor is it a reflection on identity. “He’s European” means that he follows continental European football. In addition to West Ham he also follows the fortunes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
“I’ll give you a bit of advice for free” says Ardbegman to the lad. “Make sure you learn a foreign language. You never know when you might need it.”
Ardbegman is well qualified to talk. He speaks French and German fluently and, though he does not admit it, I suspect he also speaks Russian. Uniquely among our troop, he even speaks English properly. He was born down south within sight of the French coast; he is a kilted Kentishman.
“Oh he is [learning a foreign language]” says Dad. “He’s doing German”.
I didn’t realise people still did that at school. It may be the most widely spoken language in Europe after Russian but when it comes to British school curricula, German is on a steep downward trajectory.
It was not always thus. I learned German at school and it’s just as well I did. My mother too had German classes –and also French. She went to a posh school, I must admit that but my Dad went to a much rougher place in the inner districts of Glasgow he still had French and Latin. Always two languages.
Both can still struggle by when abroad, my father with a delectable hint of a Scottish accent that allows French native speakers to identify more or less which suburb of Glasgow he actually comes from, but good will goes a long way.
I was not alone among my generation. My best friend even took the thing a stage further and did German A-level. These days he neglects to say what grade he got but nobody speaks German with a Yorkshire accent quite like he does. For us, two languages was not uncommon. When I learned German so did half the school.
When I was at university I read a newspaper report that suggested that 44% of the UK population should, in theory, be able to speak German. The reality was of course much different. A monolingual German speaker would have a significantly less than a slightly less than a 50% chance of making his way around our islands and would most likely die of starvation before tea time.
A monoglot Frenchman might do slightly better, given our theoretical 100% coverage of his native language, but it’s as just as well they all learn English. But the good will was there at least –and learning a language teaches much more than just grammar and vocabulary.
Times have changed and so has education policy. Last year less than half of all GCSE students took an exam in any foreign language. Entries for German were down by 7% on the previous year while French took an even bigger hit at 8.1%. It has been like this for several years now and the prognosis is grim.
Priorities have also changed as the UK adapts to modern economic conditions but it is sad nonetheless. A tradition is coming to an end, unnoticed and unlamented.
Every few months I get e-mails from German schoolteachers telling me that their British partner school has to cancel the yearly exchange programme because the school no longer offers German classes. Can I help to find them another one whose students would like to come to Germany?
Sadly I cannot. I learned German at three schools and none of them still teach it. I have a friend teaching in the south of England; German was cut from the curriculum last year. I always ask and ask (the people I ask) to ask (others) –but the search results are less than encouraging. Those British schools which do teach German all have long-established partners and so demand far outstrips supply.
If we’re being honest with each other, Brits don’t really need to learn German. Germans speak English and so, grudgingly, do the French. Economics and timetables dictate that French and German will slip down the list of priorities. But what has also changed is something more fundamental, a concept made in Germany that I guarantee more than 44% of Brits will understand: Zeitgeist.
When I started learning German in 1991 I was told that foreign languages would be the key to well paid jobs because Britain was a proud member of a fresh elite club, the European Community. Schoolboards were presenting us with a bright new future full of interrail passes, exchange programmes, town twinnings and cross-border business ventures. Europe was about colourful maps and brand new ideas, a land of opportunity for those who learned their French vocab and knew where Maastricht was.
You don’t hear expressions such as Eurokid, hard Ecu or Exchange Rate Mechanism any more but when I was a teenager we were made to understand these concepts, along with which countries belonged to the club, who was going to join next, what the benefits would be to us and everything else which came with it.
We took Europe very seriously when I was at school. I can name every EU country without pausing for thought; it often amuses me that many Germans cannot.
We were made to come back at lunchtimes if we got less than seven out of ten on the German test. “This is your future!” they told us. Often they were right. I have a British friend living over here because he married his German penfriend. For many years my language teachers told the tale of how I always stayed in contact with the German assistant and ended up moving here to follow Bundesliga football. Yes he can –and so can you.
Fast forward twenty-five years and the worm has turned. The EU no longer bothers to explain what it is and why we need it while the British government is now trying to explain why not being in Europe is best for the UK. It remains to be seen how schoolboards will adapt.
Any number of thorny questions now get thrown into the ring. How will Britain’s schools present Europe to the country’s young? Barcelona, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund? If it is no longer the land of opportunity then how do we explain what we now perceive it to be? And how do we explain to our kids that for them the door is closed when for me it was wide open?
My worst nightmare is that kids and teenagers’ only point of contact with Europe will be in their bi-annual history lessons under dubious leitmotifs such as “Hitler” and “Napoleon”. How we present these events in our history curricula is of course another challenge that we must also embrace, assuming of course that we still teach history.
And just where does my generation stand? If I come across as a slimy Europhile or a “remoaner” it’s because that’s exactly I am, I am proud of it and it is the British government — a Conservative government no less — which has made me so. They sold this idea to me and my generation. If I am wrong then so are our leaders.
I have no idea if our young West Ham fan is “European” in the non-footballing sense or not –but either way I hope he gets the same opportunities I did. If not then I hope the government has a damn good explanation for him. There’s been a lot of talk about being “friendly and involved” in Europe after Brexit but precious few details about what that means in real terms to real people. I also hope that in his English classes they teach him to demand answers.
Learning a language when you are a Brit may be a token gesture but it can change your life forever and for the better. “Friendly and involved” means taking one step closer to your opposite number and trying to understand what they have to say. Somewhere along the line our leaders have forgotten that.
It would be a shame if our Irons fan didn’t get the same chances I did. He should come to Germany I think. The games are not usually as bad as today’s and we’re certainly better than West Ham. There are plenty of good-looking women who might want to marry him. Dortmund isn’t such a bad old place to live and I’m grateful for the window of history that brought me here.
I might even let him buy me a pint.