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Olympic Games 2012: Languages

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prepare for a multilingual Olympic Games in 2012.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

My Lords, as part of its developing workforce strategy, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games is identifying which languages the paid and voluntary staff may need to meet the Games-time needs of athletes, spectators and the media. The mayor is co-ordinating the city visitor experience, working closely with a number of partners, including Visit London, London Councils and the boroughs. The two training and education departments, DIUS and DCSF, are working to ensure that the Games leave a lasting legacy of language development.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Will he give a commitment that the 2012 Games will not only meet the requirement in the Olympic Charter that the Games be staged in French and English, but go further and provide a full range of high-standard, multilingual services by ensuring that language skills are embedded now in the business planning not just for professional interpreters and translators, but so that the police, health workers, transport staff, caterers, ticket sales staff and others have relevant skills? Will he also undertake to discuss with the DCSF how best to target children currently at key stage 3 so that we can have a team of young language ambassadors who might begin to turn around the miserable reputation of the UK for speaking modern foreign languages?

My Lords, the Olympic Games provide a unique opportunity for London to show itself as the most hospitable city in the world. To do that, we will need to draw on the vast range of communities that can offer language skills to the wide variety of visitors whom we will receive. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that we also need a longer-term strategy for language teaching in schools. Recently, the Government commissioned a report under the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, to examine the matter. We seek to make progress in improving language provision in schools and colleges.

My Lords, does my noble friend not find it depressing that, unlike in other capital cities, if one travels on public transport in London no announcements are made in any language other than English? In preparation for the Olympics, would it not be desirable for my noble friend to talk to the Mayor of London to see whether we can at least have a number of bilingual announcements on Underground trains and buses?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that constructive suggestion. I have not the slightest doubt that during the Olympic Games there will be an attempt to extend the number of languages used in London. However, thanks to the straightforward nature and accuracy of the Underground map, most foreign visitors get around London rather more easily than they can in comparable cities in the rest of the world.

My Lords, are schools and colleges in the area around the Olympic Games site being targeted particularly for language tuition?

My Lords, that is an extremely good point. The responsibility to develop and draw on local expertise rests with the Mayor of London. The department wants to ensure that the Olympic Games provide an opportunity to show young people in the area the advantage of developing language skills. That is what we are seeking to achieve.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the writer of a report for the Government. Following the point made by my noble friend Lady Coussins, does the Minister agree that there are times when advertising and promotion can be fruitful? Does he further agree that the Olympic Games would be a very fruitful time for the Government to finance extra advertising to promote languages to children and that the Government should make a budget available for that?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a most useful suggestion and we are grateful for the work that he has done in the area of language education. We are still some distance away from the Games and the necessary preparations at the present time are all to do with structure. However, in due course they will be about the way in which London welcomes the peoples of the world to the Games. It will be enormously important that language and language skills play their part in that.

My Lords, is it not true that the perhaps more complicated languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, which are not normally taught in our schools, will be of extreme importance not only to the Olympic Games but to the future tourism industry of this country? When will steps be taken to ensure that there is a wider approach to the teaching of these languages?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has, with great accuracy, identified two areas which need to be addressed and which the Government are addressing. She will know that, in language provision in schools and colleges, we are putting particular emphasis on the development of Arabic languages and the various languages of China.

My Lords, is it the Government’s view that some of the Olympic functionaries will be unable to read road signs whether written in English or any other language? Is that why it is planned that a traffic lane should be dedicated to their exclusive convenience? Is my noble friend aware that there is a widespread view in this country that such privilege is not very British and not very sporting?

My Lords, I have heard the lanes referred to as the “Zil lanes”, and we all know the connotations of that. I think that we all appreciate that access to the Games during the short period when they are on is of surpassing importance and that it is important that we make specific transport arrangements to enable people to get to them. That is nothing to do with language; it is to do with convenience.

My Lords, further to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is not this a suitable moment for the immigrant population speakers of Arabic, Pushto, Turkish and so on to realise that they are appreciated and that their language is needed? One of the problems that we have in this country is that only west European languages are appreciated.

My Lords, I could not agree more. This is a unique opportunity to develop the contributions that communities can make in these terms. I am quite sure that people will rise to the occasion.

My Lords, I have heard him speak at the British Museum in Latin—dog Latin, I thought at the time—and I gather that he also speaks English.