Middle East enters critical few days

Allister Heath
WE must all hope that the protests in Egypt – and increasingly, across the Middle East – will lead to a blossoming of democracy and individual liberty in a region scandalously deprived of freedom for so long. There is nothing more uplifting than to see mass uprisings against hated dictators; in moments such as these, there can be no doubting the liberating power of modern technology.

Unfortunately, we also know from history than not all revolutions are an improvement – in some cases, one brutal tyranny is replaced by another. Investors and markets will thus remain on tenterhooks, with equity, debt, commodity and currencies all affected by increased risk-aversion. Oil prices could spike further if traders fear that trade flows could be disrupted. Geopolitics is always the wild card in economics. Many people had been predicting another major crisis in the Middle East – yet hardly anybody thought it would be triggered by a revolution in Tunisia. The week ahead will be crucial.

AS the world changes, emerging markets become all-powerful and the West declines, what we must teach our children must also change. One area where this is definitely true is foreign languages, an area in which the UK has an especially appalling record. The problem, however, is not merely that too few people speak, read and write in a language other than English – but that when children actually do learn another tongue, they tend to be guided towards the wrong ones. They should be learning Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi or Arabic, rather than French (ironically, the only one of those I myself master) or even German.

There are, of course, good as well as bad reasons for the UK’s general monolingualism. The fact that English is the lingua franca – a near-universal auxiliary language and the primary means of communication in business – means that the costs of not knowing any other language are much lower for Brits than they are for the Dutch or the Poles. And while it would be great to see more people learning more languages, especially for the increased cultural understanding that bi- or trilingualism inevitably gives one – there are other, even more important priorities. For instance, ensuring that more people learn to write and spell English properly would be a good start, given the preposterous inability of millions of native speakers to master apostrophes and other basics.

A language is primarily a means of communicating – if one has nothing to communicate, and no knowledge to share, it doesn’t really matter how many languages one can speak. Technical knowledge, better education in science and mathematics, practical skills – and my own favourites, better knowledge of economics and finance – would be more useful to an 18-year old than a smattering of one of the minor European languages. A better understanding of history, law and other subjects would also be great.

Some schools now offer Mandarin. But the stark fact is that the languages spoken in the fastest-growing parts of the world – Asia, Latin America, the Middle East – are spoken fluently by no more than a tiny proportion of Britain’s 18-year olds. Yet when they turn 40, it will be as common for them to work for a Chinese or Indian or Brazilian firm as it is to work for American or German bosses today. Our schools need to adapt, and fast.

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