Plenary: Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

Author: Harold Walker


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Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.


It is a great honour for me, as a rank outsider, to be giving this talk. My background is that I had a full career in the Diplomatic Service, with a concentration on the Middle East. My priority interest during the first years of my retirement was the emergency relief and development aid organisation CARE International, which had impressed me when I was ambassador in Ethiopia. I became President of that non-governmental organisation in 1997. When my stint as President was over, I reverted to a prime interest in the Middle East, and since then I have spent most of my time thrashing vainly about in the circle of people in London interested in that part of the world. So I am not an academic, and I had better explain how I came to be here. What happened was that when in January I saw on the web a list of the blocks of subjects that this conference was to cover, I sent an e-mail to the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies saying (I quote) "A pity there isn't a 'block' on "Languages as integral to Area Studies"". The result was an e-mail from Southampton asking me whether I would be interested in giving a plenary address at the conference; the subject might be something on the strategic role of languages based on my experience in the course of my career. I replied that I was not qualified, and suggested a couple of academic colleagues. In reply I was told that something a little less theoretical would fit the bill better. I gave in.

So I do not claim any particular qualifications for addressing you except that I was asked to do so. I comfort myself with the thought that at the least it can often be useful to hear the views of other people as a kind of sounding board for one's own thoughts. In that spirit I offer the following remarks related broadly to the subject of languages. By the same token I shall be quite willing to answer questions if time allows.

I said that I had suggested as a suitable subject for this kind of conference "Languages as integral to Area Studies". How did I in the first place become interested in Area Studies as an academic subject? Well, as I say, I spent much of my career in the Middle East, and a membership organisation of which I have been a member since 1962 is the Royal Society for Asian Affairs ( I have been Chairman of it for the last six years, and during my chairmanship the Society joined the reconstituted UK Council of Area Studies Associations ( as an Associate Member. I felt a personal sense of shock when some years ago Durham University decided among a number of other finance-related decisions to close its Department of East Asian Studies in 2007. From the citizen's angle the decision seemed perverse. Surely the national interest demanded more, not less, investment in the study of an area that included up-and-coming China, already arrived Japan and headline-creating Korea. In a small way I joined in a lobbying effort to persuade the government to put more into Area Studies.

My personal interests lie in the Middle East rather than East Asia, and in the area of Middle Eastern studies lobbying efforts carried out by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, BRISMES (, and others bore fruit. Somewhere within government money was found for the creation of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World ( As some of you will know, this is not in fact a centre as such, but rather a language-based research consortium of the Universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham with the resources and finance to fund a certain number of Masters studentships, PhD awards and postdoctoral fellowships.

This vehicle for Arabic-based research having helpfully been created, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, of which I became President some two years ago, has moved on, ungratefully you might think, to lobby for more attention to be paid to other Middle Eastern languages, notably Turkish and Persian.

We all have bees in our bonnet. One of mine, which has buzzed I can say even from when I was at school, is that no matter what profession we are in we should be alive to things going on in other spheres that might have a bearing on our work. We need sometimes to force ourselves to lift our eyes from our perhaps fascinating in-trays to look at the work of others. There is no question in my mind that this practice has become more difficult in recent years. The insistence on identifiable outcomes to one's work, the box-ticking philosophy and the advent of e-mail have increased the pressures on all of us. In the academic field there are the particular pressures, only dimly perceivable by me, of the Research Assessment Exercise, or whatever it is about to be called.

However that may be, I claim that when I was in the Diplomatic Service I was responsible for getting written into what was called the FCO Order Book a requirement that desk officers should be responsible for keeping in touch with the academic work relating to their subjects. I do not know whether such an instruction still exists today. My observation over the years has been that while the specialised FCO Research Analysts have been keen to keep in touch with academe it has depended largely on the inclinations of under-secretaries (as they used to be called) whether the mainstream desk officers have done so. I have checked recently that the academic world is regarded as one of the "stakeholders" (horrible jargon) in the FCO. This is very good news, though I do have one worry. Within the FCO the "stakeholder manager" is the Research Analysts Department, and again I am concerned that the mainstream may not be sufficiently brought in. It also concerns me that within the FCO there has been a shift from geographical departments to departments covering themes, and that if you look on the internet about the Public Service Agreement covering the FCO it appears that the FCO have been unable to convince the rest of Whitehall of what their special contribution to government business is. Surely what the citizen, the businessman and even Ministers want of the FCO is that it should offer a special understanding of foreigners and an ability to influence them in the interests of the UK.

Of course it is only a short step from advising people that they should lift their eyes from their own work to have a look at the wider world to advising them to learn a foreign language. In a globalised world, where the language of so many aspects of life is English - in civil aviation, in much of business - it might be tempting to conclude that there is no need for English-speakers to learn other languages. But this conference knows that there are many good reasons for the study of foreign languages. Even at the bread-and-butter level a smattering of a foreign language can help. I can illustrate from my own career. I am sorry to say that when I was posted to be ambassador in Addis Ababa I did not have the will-power to learn Amharic, which I ought to have been able to do since I already had another Semitic language in the shape of Arabic. But I learnt enough to know whether a banner across a road in rural Ethiopia was a road-sign, an advertisement for a restaurant or a party slogan; this served me well. To stick at this practical level, there is a tendency for businessmen to say that if they want to converse with an Arabic speaker or have an Arabic document translated, then they will hire a Lebanese. But do businessmen, any more than diplomats, feel content that their most confidential material should be handled by a foreigner, who cannot perhaps be security-vetted to the necessary standard?

A perhaps extreme example of the untilitarian argument for languages was offered in a letter to The Times on 28 March this year. The author, from City University [ Professor Tim Connell, wrote: "My old Oxford tutor taught French to secret agents before they were parachuted into enemy-occupied France. Legend has it that he prefaced his courses by saying: 'Unless you pay attention in my class, in six months you will be shot.' This is an incentive I have long wanted to introduce into the university, though the idea to date has received only limited support."

Anthony Burgess ["A Mouthful of Air"] confessed that "the utilitarian argument is not strong for English speakers. The final argument for learning ancient languages is (as for modern languages) that "certain literary pleasures are unavailable in translation"". Burgess did not have literary pleasures alone in mind. He also wrote "We learn Latin not to juggle with subjunctives and gerunds but to understand the Roman mind". This argument was repeated in a letter to The Times on 1 February from an academic at the University of Bradford [Katie Harvey]. She wrote: "Learning languages is not just about learning to communicate; it is also learning about a different culture, a different way of life, something that pupils and students who do not study languages miss out on."

The trouble indeed with arguing that to understand a foreign culture you need to have at least an inkling of one of its major languages is that the proposition is almost self-evident. Where academic definitions are concerned the Quality Assurance Agency appears to be neutral: it refers to "[T[hose programme where languages are studied". I note too that the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Oxford does not mention language as such among the disciplines it regards as necessary for the study of society - anthropology, economics, politics, history, sociology and culture. But I guess that the term "culture" is intended to include language. Certainly, on the anecdotal level I have asked many academics what arguments they can adduce for the proposition and they just say that it speaks for itself.

However, perhaps two kinds of "evidence" are worth drawing upon. First, there is what a body of people conclude if they jointly study the matter as best they can. Thus the European Commission writes "The benefits of knowing foreign languages are unquestionable. Language is the path to understanding other ways of living, which in turn opens up the space for intercultural tolerance. Furthermore, language skills facilitate working, studying and travelling across Europe and allow true intercultural communication. In other words, multilingualism contributes a great deal to the key European values of democracy, equality, transparency and competitiveness". Add that similar arguments are being put forward for the learning of the languages - "community languages" - that are used within multicultural Britain.

The second kind of evidence is the evidence that may be anecdotal but is nonetheless persuasive. Let us take a few examples. Sir John Malcolm, who wrote a famous two-volume "History of Persia" in 1815, was a servant of the East India Company who decided to qualify for diplomatic postings with the company by learning Persian, then the language of the Muslim courts of India. His Persian became so good that by 1797, when he was twenty-eight, he was making his own translations of the poet Hafiz. He was duly appointed an interpreter, and then led an embassy to the Persian Court, negotiating the first treaties between Persia and Britain. His history, for which he drew on Persian sources, remains a useful historical source to this day.

Or take the expert on Tibet, W Montgomery McGovern, who wrote "To Lhasa in Disguise" in 1924. He tells us: "In bygone years I had devoted much time to a theoretical study of the Tibetan language and customs, in the hope that this would the better enable me to carry on exploration at first hand. But it was my privilege to utilize this stored-up knowledge and to continue my studies under very peculiar conditions...Arrived in Tibet, I had necessarily to disguise myself as a Tibetan coolie, and to travel as such through the heart of the country"... At last I arrived in Lhasa. Here I was foolish enough to reveal myself voluntarily to the authorities, with the result that the monks of Lhasa led a popular riot against me..." McGovern became a prisoner of the state, and was obliged to continue: "In this way my adventure came to an end, but in the meantime I had been able to secure numerous priceless manuscripts, had met or seen all the principal persons in the sacred city, and had had unequalled opportunities for studying the inner life of the Tibetan people and the working of their institutions."

It goes without saying that, as McGovern's tale exemplifies, it is sometimes dangerous to get to know a country well. In the Arab world and Iran there has always been a tendency to regard with suspicion foreigners who speak the local language. But that is just an aspect of the local culture that one has to learn to live with, for which, precisely, one needs the local language.

For me, perhaps the most telling evidence comes from a recent book about an Arabic-speaking American academic friend of mine ("One Family's Response to Terrorism" by Susan Kerr van de Ven). He wrote, in relation to the pitfalls of being culture-bound: "Our perceptions of the world are distorted not only by the incompleteness of our information but also by the way in which our established habits of thought and taste and our inherited forms of moral preference tend to mold our consciousness of events into familiar patterns. The truly cultivated man is marked by empathy - by his recognition that the thought and understanding of men of other cultures may differ sharply from his own, that what seems natural to him may appear grotesque to others, and that each patttern without the complement of the others is parochial". One of my friend's books, "Islamic Reform", was respected in academic circles for its command of Arabic sources, and for what an Arab colleague of his described years later as its "mental transposition" - the ability to comprehend the Islamic system of life from the inside. The Middle East lost one of its best interpreters to the West when in 1984, as President of the American University of Beirut, my friend Malcolm Kerr was assassinated.

My own experiences hardly deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those of the personalities I have cited. However, you might be interested to hear about some of them. First,  how did I come to learn Arabic? My memory tells me that in those distant days (the late '50s) I was summoned to the FO Personnel Department, as were two of my colleagues, and told that "You, you and you are going to learn Arabic unless you have strong objection". I had no objection: I wanted to learn about a culture outside my own European culture, and thought that a tonal language like Chinese would be beyond me. By the time in the late ''70s that I was Head of Personnel in the FCO we had certainly become more sophisticated in selecting officers for hard language training: we put new entrants through a language aptitude test derived from US sources before deciding what languages to get them to learn. After some introductory weeks of Arabic at SOAS I studied Arabic, along with aspects of Arab culture, at the now long defunct school run by the FCO in the village of Shemlan in Lebanon - MECAS (the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies). [The centre was written up by Sir James Craig in his book "Shemlan" (Macmillan Press 1998).] By an accident that I have not got the time to go into I later became Principal Instructor there. I think I may have been rather a good one because, to pick up something in one of the break-out sessions I have just attended, I as a native English speaker understood the particular problems the students were facing. We had our own grammar, a practical volume for people brought up in the British system of the time; our own word list, adapted from a word count the origins of which I have forgotten; and a high teacher-student ratio. The method of learning vocabulary, which was to carry round cards with an English word written on one side and an Arabic on the other, reminds me of what the great explorer Richard Burton said about his studies in the mid-1800s: "I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learned them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day..." The basic course at MECAS lasted ten months; if you did well you stayed on another six months for the Advanced Course. That gave you a firm base in both written and spoken Arabic for wherever in the Arab world you might be posted.

I used Arabic a great deal in my career. Few local people of importance spoke English in my first posting, Dubai: my boss and I should have been unable to dig ourselves into the community without a knowledge of the language. This was still largely true when I returned to the UAE as ambassador in the early '80s: in particular the ruling Shaikhs and their most senior advisers could not speak English.

To hurry on to the end of my career, one of the more bizarre conversations I had in Iraq was with Hussein Kamil, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, then the Minister in charge of military industries, with him taking the line that the West was trying to debar the Iraqis from their legitimate right to develop sophisticated modern industries.

On reflection I hardly think I could have done an effective job in the Arab world if I had not had a working knowledge of Arabic; and I should  have misunderstood the Arab world even more often than I have done. I have no doubt personally that if you want to understand an area you must have some understanding of at least one of the local languages. An under-estimated aspect is the insight you get from being able to read the local newspapers - whether under government control or not.


To sum up, while there is certainly a place for what might be called pure academic research, I would suggest that few academics will not benefit from looking from time to time beyond their own immediate concerns to play a role in their academic community and even to engage with government or the public. Even more necessary is it that officials should engage with academe. On both sides empathy is a quality to be looked for if one is to understand other cultures, and an essential way in is language.