The teaching of modern foreign languages (MFL) is widely assumed to be unaffected by the teacher’s faith or worldview.
It is almost certain that James Bond would have studied French at Eton College. Surely ‘siege ejectable’ is the French for ‘ejector seat’ whether the teacher is a Buddhist, Christian, rat worshipper or materialist. True enough but there is far more to teaching French than that. Why do we want our students to learn French in the first place? (My thoughts on this topic have been greatly sharpened by Arthur Jones and David Smith.) The MFL literature suggests several reasons. Students should learn French so that they can become:
Profiteers – how can our pupils exploit the opportunities of the European market if they don’t speak the language? Your ability to speak French will enhance your job prospects and earning power. Posters conveying this message will be found in many MFL classrooms.
Persuaders – how can we persuade other countries of the superiority of our policies and values if we can’t speak their language?
Connoisseurs – many teachers have explored the riches of French culture and literature and want to introduce their pupils to what they have come to deeply appreciate and love.
Tourists – many other teachers dismiss these goals as too idealistic. All most children need – and will absorb – is enough of the language to get by on their overseas holidays and shopping trips.
Escapologists – Some children’s experience of life – in broken families and poverty – is poor. What better than to escape into another language and culture and forget – at least for a while – the painful realities at home.
Revolutionaries – Finally, some teachers would use MFL teaching to sharpen pupils’ understanding of their own culture and alert them to its social and economic injustices.
Can any of these visions of MFL teaching be Christian? How do they chime with the biblical story? Calvin College professor David Smith suggests that the goal of MFL teaching should be to nurture good neighbours? For example, we might want our children to learn French so that they can be good neighbours to French-speaking asylum seekers and also show hospitality to the French who visit Britain or who come to live here. Teaching and learning a foreign language is not a worldview-neutral activity.
Unfortunately many Christians who teach MFL can be easily mugged by secular justifications for their work. It’s all too easy to trot out materialist rationales for MFL. We study Mandarin for profit and enhanced status etc. We need to notice that a kind of secular indoctrination has taken place.
One other point worth noting is the striking absence of Christian beliefs and insights from MFL materials. It would seem that all foreigners live without any reference to God and Jesus. In fact the only reference to anything remotely ‘religious’ in many MFL syllabi is to horoscopes! Of course there is a constant and persistent dripfeed of the consumerist faith and way of life. It’s all about buying your strawberry ice cream, your café au lait, your cake, your steak au poivre, your helicopter, your sacred right to have constant consumer satisfaction.
Let’s formulate some questions. Do we study French in order to serve the money god? Do we learn our French verbs because we want to be incredibly rich like Hetty Green? Or do we learn French so that we can bless and love our neighbours?