§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale rose to call attention to the importance of the English language and the case for making it easier to learn; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.
§ I am greatly honoured that so many of your Lordships have shown an interest in this important subject and, often at some inconvenience to themselves, have put down their names to speak in this debate. I am particularly gratified and honoured that two speakers have chosen this occasion to make their maiden speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is one of those making her maiden speech today and rather mischeviously I suggested that she might adopt the Lallan speech of Robert Burns, but I do not think she has been so beguiled. My noble friend Lord Moore is also making a maiden speech. Your Lordships will remember the title of one of the most important works on linguistics and literary use of this century, which is The king's English. I am sure that your Lordships are looking forward eagerly to both those maiden speeches.
§ I should like to make a personal plea. I have my hack to the Clock and I cannot pick out the figures on the indicators so I should be grateful if any noble Lord in my vicinity or on the Front Bench will indicate when the figure 10 comes up so that I can bring my observations to an end. I am sure that your Lordships would not like the comparatively meagre time that is left to subsequent speakers to be curtailed.657
§ I took the title of the Motion from a notable article some little time ago by my noble friend Lord Annan when, in the context of education, he indicated that we have two world languages; namely, English and mathematics. This debate is devoted to the former. Some 350 million people speak English as their mother tongue. Another 400 million speak it, not as their mother tongue but generally as their second language. That, of course, is a great advantage to ourselves and to the world. To the world, it gives a means of common communication. Where it is, as in law and administration, a second language, it is a unifying force, as in India, Malaysia and many other places. English commands the richest vocabulary of all world languages. It gives access to literature of great richness, living as well as past.
§ The advantages to ourselves need no expatiation from me. They are sufficiently marked by the institutions of the British Council and the BBC World Service, about which others of your Lordships will be speaking. Although we are a minority of those who speak English, even as a mother tongue, we have a duty to the English language, partly because it originated here, partly because we can influence by example, though not by precept, and partly because anything we can reasonably do to make it easier to learn is performing a duty to our children.
§ The other day there were some alarming references to illiteracy—even in this country after 100 years of universal education. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies she will be able to deal with that. We obviously owe a duty to those children in respect of the English language.
§ We also owe a duty to those who honour and benefit us by learning English as a second language. When considering any improvement, we must do nothing, I venture to suggest, that may cause the break-up of the English language, as Latin, a world language, broke up into French and the other Romance languages.
§ One topic that I should like to raise before turning to the second part of the Motion is the education of ethnic minorities in this country. In many schools, they constitute the majority of the pupils. Some argue that they should be taught in the dialect or language of their ethnic origin. It is argued that this gives them justifiable pride in their ethnic culture and heritage, and that they learn more easily if taught that way. On the other hand, it seems to me to fail to give such pupils the full advantage of mastery of a world language and their own municipal language, and tends to imprison them in an ethnic and cultural ghetto. I know that your Lordships will be grateful to hear about that matter from the noble Baroness.
§ The second part of the Motion relates to ease of learning. In many ways, English is an easy language to learn. Heine once said that the ancient Romans, if they had had to learn Latin, would never have had time to conquer the world. We have avoided the type of difficulties that Latin presents and must have presented.
§ During the long submergence of English by French after the Norman conquest, practically all the inflections which are such a trouble in langages such as Latin and German have been rubbed off to our great advantage: nevertheless, the fact that there is illiteracy 658 suggests—quite apart from abundant analytical evidence—that English still presents considerable and in many respects unnecessary difficulties to learning.
§ I have three objects in opening this debate. The first is to try to identify some of the areas where English is unnecessarily difficult, although that obviously must be selective. Secondly, I wish to suggest how it can be made easier. I must at once confess myself a conservative in this respect. Many people who have studied the matter far more profoundly than I have would go much further. I have arrived, like most of us, at an age where we have learnt to spell. I have up to a point, I suppose; and I have learnt to write. I am too old to start again and learn something new.
Not only am I a conservative in what I urge upon your Lordships. My plea will also be based mainly on economy. Your Lordships may remember the young lady in "Gentlemen prefer Blondes" who said:
A child that looks like his father is worth money in the bank".
I hope that what I suggest to your Lordships will be worth money in the bank. My third object is to identify, if possible, the means by which any desirable improvement can be brought about easily, painlessly and economically.
§ It is notorious that the main difficulty in learning English is the divergence between spelling and pronunciation. The examples are numerous. I intend to mention only one or two of the most notorious. The most quoted points the way to ease of improvement. It is, "OUGH" as in "bough" "brought", "cough", "plough", "though", "through", "thorough" and many others. The Americans spell "plough" "plow". We have no difficulty with that. That saves two-thirds, does it not? We could spell "though" as it was spelt in the 18th century—"tho". That is a saving of 50 per cent.
§ I turn to one respect in which grammar could be improved. The main difficulty in learning English grammar is the irregular verb. A child will say, "He teached me". The other day I received a letter from an import/export agency which said, "We have runned out of stock". I do not suggest for a moment that all irregular verbs could be made regular but there is a great overlap. Take the word "dream", for example. The past tense can either be "dreamt" or "dreamed". Given the choice we should obviously use the regular form.
§ How do we improve matters? The Americans have again showed the way. Theodore Roosevelt directed that all government writing should be in the new, improved and easier manner. That could be done right away by the Government. The Department of Education and Science and its predecessors have been pretty obstructive in the past in this respect. However, the new Minister seems to have come along with a stick of ginger. I hope that the noble Baroness will tell us something about Professor Kingman's new committee which. I am glad to see, has to report in 12 months.
§ The final method I would suggest is that we have a language commission like the Law Commission, which has been the great institutional success of my lifetime. My noble and learned friends Lord Gardiner and Lord Elwyn-Jones are entitled to full credit. A language commission could well carry out wide consultations, circulate green papers, and then put 659 forward recommendations for making our language easier to learn.
§ If this debate leads to a greater sense of the value that we have inherited and makes our language easier to learn, I shall be very proud to have initiated it. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, it is a philistine aberration of this House to debate a subject of this richness and complexity with the speeches cut to seven minutes. I hope that, if the Procedure Committee cannot do anything about these matters, we may at least develop a self-denying convention that if we see there are already 12 names down in a list for a short debate we go away and forget about it.
In thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for providing us with this subject today, let me say that I was puzzled by his words. When he wrote that there was a case for making it easier to learn, I wondered whether he meant making the English language itself easier to learn or simply making it simpler to learn the English language. Did he want to change the language or the learning situation? Was he wanting to impose on us that monstrous spelling reform which was Bernard Shaw's terminal sick joke? This I have always regarded as being as dangerous as it is ugly.
English is spoken by one seventh of the world population, but it is spoken in many different ways. Some English speakers cannot be understood by others. If we were to spell phonetically, the world's most important language would cease to be universally comprehensible in written form, as it is today. Alternatively, was the noble and learned Lord an enthusiast for basic English, with its minimum vocabulary and simplified syntax, which robs the translation of any novel or essay of all delight?
I am against all such wickedness. Instead I believe that English can be made easier for foreigners—English without tears—by having more highly trained teachers, equipped with better instruction books and the learning cassettes pioneered by Linguaphone. Great work on the English language has been done in recent years by Sir Randolph Quirk and his partners to produce grammars which show foreigners not just what is right and wrong but how the language is used by native English speakers. As anyone knows who has wrestled—linguistically, I mean—with an au pair, we can say, "I am afraid that that is not English", without being able to adduce a rule, because there is none. For our guidance of what is acceptable we can fall back upon instinct. The foreign teacher of English cannot do so. However, he now has Professor Quirk's grammars to help him.
The English language is the native language of 300 million people in the United States in these islands and in some Commonwealth countries. It is the second language in India, large parts of Africa, the Philippines and Ethopia. In many other countries it has to be learned as the main foreign language, for it is the language of science and technology. It is the language of computer science, shipping, aviation and sport. Sixty per cent. of the world's broadcasts and 70 per 660 cent. of its correspondence is in English. One half of the world's scientific literature is available in English. It is taught not only by the BBC and the excellent British Council, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said, but also by the US information agency and "Voice of America".
Many thousands of people all over the world want to learn the language of Shakespeare and Milton, not, I am afraid, to read those great authors but to qualify themselves for a good job. If success eludes some of these students, at least they have the consolation of knowing, to use the brutal words of Britannica,because of the laxity of syntax, English is a very easy language to speak poorly".Nevertheless, English with today's linguistic insights can be well taught and successfully learned. I have met Russians on their first trip to England speaking easily and colloquially on everyday subjects and having a knowledge of our literature and an ability to converse seriously on intellectual matters. A few years ago in China at the University of Xian we had an opportunity to talk to second year students of English. They had never met an English person before. They conversed slowly but elegantly without any of the mistakes that we traditionally associate with the Chinese.
I had precisely the opposite experience at a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association a few years ago. Some of the Indians, highly intellectual men, whose English, grammar and syntax were impeccable, were almost incomprehensible to us when they addressed the conference. This problem was foreseen 30 years ago when it was realised that Indian teachers of English who had themselves been taught by Indians would be training another generation of Indian teachers of English, with the result that the language would become less and less comprehensible. A rescue operation was manned at Allahabad but the effect seems to have been limited.
I should like to see more teachers specialising not in English literature, not even in English language, but simply in diction. We now know enough scientifically about the spoken language to combat the faults which foreign speakers bring to it from their native language. If the Russians and the Chinese can overcome the problem so brilliantly, so surely can others.
I am the victim of my own self-denying ordinance. I have cut my speech to ribbons, and I have finished in six minutes.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, even in the short time available I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for raising a matter of such importance as to attract a large list of speakers, including two most distinguished maiden speakers.
The part of the Motion on which I should like to dwell first relates to the importance of the English language. I believe that a spread of English should encourage mutual understanding between states. It could even contribute to the maintenance of peace, and it would certainly provide for cultural and scientific exchanges.
As we have heard, some 750 million people speak English either as their mother tongue or as their second language. I believe that it is because of that fact that we 661 rather take things for granted. I know of the good work of the British Council, the BBC, the English Speaking Union and so on, but I still believe that we do not do enough to promote the understanding of the importance of English, especially when we compare ourselves with France.
I should like to direct your Lordships' attention to what has been and what is happening there. Your Lordships will know that as long ago as 1637 the Académie Francaise was established, with the accent on creating and maintaining the purity of the language. In recent years councils and organisations have been brought into being to cover all domestic and international aspects of the French language and to co-ordinate all the work already being done. The councils are composed at a very high level indeed. They are presided over by the President of France and by the Prime Minister, and again they are serviced at a very high level indeed. They are all very active.
It was only last year in Paris that 41 heads of state and heads of governments of French-speaking sovereign countries met to promote consciousness of a common good; that is to say, the French language. I understand that they are meeting again later this year in Quebec. Five continents were represented at that gathering and thus over 100 million people who speak French, two-thirds of whom have French as their mother tongue. President Mitterrand took the chair at that meeting. That indicates the importance which is attached by the French to francophonie.
The Prime Minister of France heads the Commissariat Générale of French Language to support and co-ordinate public and private bodies concerned with the spread and protection of the French language. It has association with no fewer than 85 private agencies, each very active in part of this field. I am indebted to the French Embassy for this information, and I should add that, as one would imagine, the French Embassy is anxious to assist anyone who desires help on aspects of the French language. The administrative general secretary is a gentleman called M. Zinovieff; he is obviously a very good choice because plainly he is a man of letters!
There is also a body concerned with terminology; that is to say, a body for dealing with the worst that technology, science and British jargon can throw at it. Your Lordships should know that in the French law of 1975 all words spoken or written about any goods or services must be in French.
I regard that as the proper level of importance to be given to the use, enrichment and preservation of the French language. By comparison we do less well, except in one respect. We do one thing which the French do not do. We have found an inexpensive and effective method of promoting the use of English—we simply refuse to talk to any foreigner in a language other than our own! However, that is no longer adequate in a highly competitive world.
The first question I ask the Government seriously to consider is what we can do to raise the level of conscious appreciation of the importance of English. Secondly, I ask the Government to consider what to do to protect the purity of our language, especially against the depredations of the Government themselves.
662 For example, there is the use of the verb as a noun, as in two official government Statements referring to "sourcing policies" and "sourcing intentions". That has nothing to do with tomatoes whatever. There is the noun used as a verb as in, "rubbishing Select Committees' reports before publication". There is also the plural use of the singular as in "the data is". There is the superfluous pronoun as "to meet with" and other horrid Americanisms. Then there is the otiose prefix "disassociate". I could go on for a long time if the clock would only stop.
I make it clear that I am not against slang in its proper place. Indeed, slick slang can be evidence of a language very much alive. I am saying that this is not the appropriate place for it. I hope that the Government will share my view that your Lordships could have a proper role in this matter: monitoring what is being done elsewhere; through a Select Committee considering the whole problem; or at least trying to maintain a reasonable standard of purity of our language in our own House.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Moore of Wolvercote
My Lords, it is with considerable trepidation that I rise to address your Lordships for the first time, especially as the stopwatch is on. I am told that a noble Lord was once reputed to have said, "I used to have recurring nightmares that I was addressing the House of Lords, and then one day I woke up and I found that I was". My Lords, I know how he felt.
I thought that it might be appropriate for me to make my maiden speech on the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, on the importance of the English language because, during the course of my life, I have been able to see for myself how important English is throughout the world. I suggest that there are three reasons for that. The first is the advantage to Britain herself. There is no doubt that the widespread use of English greatly enhances our prestige and influence and helps us enormously as a trading nation. I have always believed that it was one of the sad post-war developments that, with the loss of the Empire, the British people, in a sense, turned their backs on some of their most splendid achievements, not the least of which was the devolution of an empire into a Commonwealth of independent nations. Partly because of the sensible way in which we governed and the institutions we left, and partly because of the enlightened way in which we brought the colonial territories to independence, Britain is enormously respected in the Commonwealth today, and that is perhaps best illustrated in the use of the English language. I remember Lee Kuan Yew, on coming to power in Singapore nearly 28 years ago, resolving that the best way to counter the chauvinist draw of Communist Peking on his Chinese population was to work towards the replacement of Chinese with English as the main language of the Singapore schools. I believe that that has now almost been achieved, and it is a remarkable tribute both to the English language and to Britain.
It is not only in the Commonwealth that there is a demand for English; it is universal. I was fascinated to find in Algeria, in the heart of Francophone Africa, that there was a great queue of Algerians waiting to 663 take English language courses run by the British Council. Having learned English at home, they come to Britain as overseas students and eventually return to their homelands, probably to become friends of Britain for life.
My second point is that, in an age where there have been tremendous advances in communication and the countries of the world have been brought so much closer together, it is desperately important that people should be able to converse without a language barrier. The Commonwealth, with its membership of nearly 50 nations and a quarter of the world's population, is the prime example of this.
One is often asked: "Why does the Commonwealth hold together?" I reply: "First, the Queen, and secondly, the English language". I think that anyone who has attended Commonwealth conferences will agree that they are quite unique, in that all the Heads of Government are able to express opinions, discuss and argue with each other in the freest possible way with a common tongue.
It is not only in Commonwealth meetings that English is so widely used; it is also used in many international meetings, not least in the European Community. A distinguished Commonwealth statesman once told me many years ago that President de Gaulle would never allow Britain into the Common Market because he feared that English would become the language of the Community. How prescient the General was.
My third point concerns the part played by the English language in making available throughout the world the unique contribution of British culture to the history of civilisation. Here I should like to add my own personal tribute to the work of the British Council and the Overseas Service of the BBC. Much that is best about Britain would go by default were it not for the work of these two remarkable British institutions. I have had 40 years' experience of their work and it would be impossible to exaggerate the significance of their contribution both to Britain and to the world. And so, my Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for making it possible for me to make my maiden speech on the importance of the English language, for, my Lords, it is indeed important.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, it has never before happened to me to find myself sandwiched between two maiden speakers. Of the speech which is to follow I can say only that I look forward to it keenly, as do all noble Lords. But, of the speech to which we have just listened I can say more. It occurs to me, first, that it must be a very long time since your Lordships' House has had an opportunity to welcome a recruit of such immense distinction.
If my researches have not misled me the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, showed at an early age the sort of stuff of which he is made by exchanging the status of a prisoner of war for that of an Oxford rugger blue in a matter of months. There followed other notable athletic achievements, which led him on to a career of what I can only describe as unmitigated 664 success; a career of such distinction, both in diplomacy and in service to the Royal Household, that we less worthy Members of this House feel enormously and undeservedly honoured to have him as a colleague. After hearing the noble Lord's maiden speech, with its admirable lucidity, persuasiveness and reasonableness, I am sure all noble Lords will agree that we hope he will find it possible, or will make it possible, to take part in our debates on every suitable occasion.
Now I must turn quickly to the subject of the debate, which was so comprehensively introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I have received, as I expect other noble Lords have, excellent briefs both from the British Council and from the BBC External Services, in particular the component known as "English by Radio and Television". I am most grateful to both those splendid organisations, each of which could well deserve a debate on its own. But, sadly, I have concluded that in a time-limited debate such as this it is quite impossible to do justice to those worthy causes. Therefore, I shall try to make one simple point which refers to the second half of the noble and learned Lord's Motion.
I suggest that the best way to make English easier to learn is, paradoxically, to teach Latin. We seem to cope very much more readily with that part of our language which is derived from Anglo-Saxon roots than with the rest. To the best of my recollection, Mrs. Malaprop had very little trouble with Anglo-Saxon, but she was woefully ignorant of Latin. I wonder whether possibly she personified a national characteristic. It is almost as though for one or two millennia we have been unconsciously resisting the linguistic implications and consequences of the Roman and Norman conquests.
In formal education—and how much I dislike much of the jargon of educationists—the problem seems to be this: that they call the age of conceptualisation comes at about 13 or 14 years of age. I take it that conceptualisation means what we would call roughly abstract thought. This becomes, or should become, part of a child's mental equipment shortly before the child has to make those important choices of what to study at 16-plus. At this time the Latinate content of teaching language is increasing all the way. Any child to whom that side of our language is virtually unknown is at a cruel and avoidable disadvantage and underachievement may simply worsen with every year of education which follows. What can be done? I am certainly not suggesting that we should oblige our children or grandchildren to spend hours and hours in the forcible conversion of Herrick into imitation Ovid. It was great fun if you happened to enjoy it. It taught a certain mental verbal agility, but very little else.
I have in mind the teaching of simple Latin; the principal root words, the formation and correct usage of prefixes and suffixes. I am indebted for this idea to an article in the Journal of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers —where else? It is an article written by Adrian Spooner, the head of classics in a comprehensive school.
He mentions an experiment conducted in elementary schools in Indianapolis in 1973. The experimental group was taught simple Latin. The control group was not. It is claimed that within a 665 five-month period the experimental group made the following gains over the control group—in five months—a gain of one year in reading and of four months in spelling. There was a gain of between seven and nine months in various forms of mathematics and of five months in science. I must admit to a certain scepticism when confronted with statistics of this sort, but on this occasion I am tempted to accept them because they are what I would have expected.
In conclusion, I would say to teachers: "Whatever you are meant to be teaching, you are teaching English as well all the time, and you will find it so much easier if you have been able to squeeze a little simple Latin into the timetable along the way".
§ 5.39 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, as all your Lordships will be aware, it is with the greatest diffidence and humility that I stand here in this beautiful and historic Chamber among your noble, learned, reverend, gallant and totally illustrious Lordships. I ask you to bear with me now with the same kindness and indulgence that you have shown me since I was privileged to take my seat, on my birthday, in your Lordships' House.
I hope that you can hear me. I find it very difficult to hear anything except the knocking of my knees and the pounding of heavy butterflies inside me. I feel very honoured and proud to stand here in my noble relative's shoes—although not, of course, literally! As many of your Lordships will know, my noble relative was an eccentric and—dare I say it?—a strange dresser. On one occasion he arrived at London Airport, hailed a taxi and said, "House of Lords". The taxi driver took one look at him and said, "No, my Lord, first I shall drive you to a shoe shop. You cannot enter their Lordships' House in your bedroom slippers".
I am very mindful of the advice of my noble friend Lord Denham, so I shall try not to be like the new minister of the Church of Scotland on preaching his first sermon. Afterwards he asked the elders how it had gone. "It went just fine", said one of them. "It put me in mind of the peace and mercy of God." So the minister was rather relieved and very pleased. And he went home and read his Bible, as Ministers do, and in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, he read, "The peace of God passeth all understanding". So he went quickly back to the Old Testament, and in the Psalms he read, "The mercy of God endureth for ever". So I shall try and be clear and concise.
My Lords, I feel very privileged to be speaking in the debate initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who is always so lucid and eloquent, and who has been so kind as to say such nice things about me, for which I thank the noble and learned Lord. I am also privileged to be speaking after such a distinguished and enjoyable maiden speech as that of the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, and thank him very much.
It is a subject which is very close to my heart. Our English language is one of the chief glories of our nation, which reached its finest flower in the beautiful prose of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the King James VI Book of Common Prayer. It is also a living, growing language, and it behoves us all to 666 preserve its beauty and excellence while also using it continuously in everyday speech.
From the earliest Anglo-Saxon our language has evolved and grown. The Normans brought in their words of Norman French, though, my Lords, it is a sad social reflection on the Norman Conquest that while my Norman ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, the noble Earl of Oxford, was feasting on roast beef, veal, peaches and wine, my Saxon forebears had to make do with oxtail stew, calves' brains, apples and ale.
Latin, being the language of the Church and also of the law, extended and increased the diversity of our vocabulary, and from time to time more French. Cul-de-sac and cafe are now as English as le pullover and le weekend are French. In the day of empire words like posh and tiffin, kedgeree and juggernaut, became part of the English language.
Words and phrases from all over the country continue to enrich our language. I have heard your Lordships described in the good old northern term as gradely lot". May I add to that our own Scottish Lallans? When I came here I knew that your Lordships were weel-kent, and kenspeckle. Now I have found that you are all couthy as well.
Let us by all means simplify our language so that it can spread further, as the noble and learned Lord suggests. But not to the point of absurdity. My Lords, may I give a brief illustration? When my noble relative took his seat he sent us a telegram, with due economy of phrase, saying, "Name now Strange". The Post Office, in their wisdom, decided to curtail this further, so that the message we actually received was, "Nim now String."
Our English language is not like the leaderless Saxons at the Battle of Maldon fighting against impossible odds in a hopeless cause.Hi woldon tha ealle othe twega,lif forlaetan othe leofne gewrecan.Our English language is not a dead language stuck in a moment of time like a fly in amber—it is a growing, changing, living language.
When I was a little girl much of the globe was coloured a most pleasing shade of pink, and I was proud to feel that I was part of the great British Empire. Now that much of our empire has become independent, there is physically little of the pleasing pink left. But yet, my Lords, what a spiritual benefit is left in the world from our empire—British law and order, our sense of honour and decency, our formality and ceremony, our justice, our parliaments, our monarchy. All, all are shining examples of which we must feel justly proud. But above all there is our English language which has spread and grown until now all over the world it lives undying on the lips of men.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I am particularly glad that it has fallen upon me to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, upon her maiden speech. She and her family have been friends of mine and my family for many years. It has given me especial pleasure to hear her make such an excellent and entertaining speech, couched, as is suitable to this occasion, in impeccable English, and so beautifully delivered.
667 I am sure that her father, her noble relative, whom many of us remember so well, would have been very proud could he have heard her today. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that we shall hope to hear her frequently in the future. And, of course, I should like to add my congratulations to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his excellent maiden speech.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for putting down this Motion today. But I am afraid that I cannot join him in walking down the path towards the simplification of the English language, although I appreciate his reasons for wishing to do so.
We have a beautiful, rich, expressive language which has evolved over many centuries from a wide variety of linguistic sources, with roots thousands of years ago in such far apart places as India and Scandinavia. Invaders of this country, as the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has said, have brought us the gift of their tongues—although the gift was perhaps not always welcome at the time—and we have absorbed them. And so our language has evolved.
For instance, the verb "to drink" is derived from the German "trinken", and the past participle "drunk" from the German "getrunken". So to change the past participle from "drunk" to "drinked" would be to cut off the word from its ancestry and to deny its descent. I do not think that you can streamline a language by legislation, nor do I think that you should try to.
I am afraid that I take the rather robust view that if foreigners want to come and live in our lovely country and enjoy freedom from persecution and all the other freedoms we enjoy, then they can take the trouble to learn our language, irregular verbs, derivative spelling, variations in pronunciation, exceptions to rules and all. After all, there are plenty of difficulties in other languages—French and German in particular.
But, having said that, we really must put or own house in order. To expect foreigners to learn English when we have ceased either to teach it or learn it properly ourselves is expecting too much. I wonder how many of your Lordships are aware that after 11 years of so-called education costing the taxpayer and ratepayer thousands of millions of pounds, some 75,000 young people are leaving school every year unable to read or write properly or speak the Queen's English. They cannot understand simply written instructions; they cannot write an intelligible letter; they cannot do justice to themselves in an interview; they are virtually unemployable. They are as truly handicapped as the mentally disabled, for English is not just a subject like any other. It is the key to learning almost everything else. Most other subjects can be learnt or even self-taught provided that one can read easily and with comprehension and speak correctly so as to be understood.
Why has this happened? Because, for a generation, grammar has been thrown out of the classroom window. Why? At the behest of a bunch of cranky educationists who decided that the study of spelling and grammar inhibited imagination and creativity while responsible people who should have known better believed them. It will be a hard job to put 668 English grammar back into the classroom. Some of the teachers are by now almost as ignorant of it as the pupils. But it must be done, and quickly too. I suggest that crash courses in English grammar and diction for teachers might be the way to start, always provided, of course, that enough grammarians still exist who are prepared to hold them. At the same time I propose that the study of English language and grammar be made compulsory for all pupils up to school-leaving age from Land's End to Shetland.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Shaughnessy
My Lords, I should like to second the congratulations of the noble Lord, Lord McNair, and my noble friend Lady Saltoun to our two maiden speakers on such a splendid initial presentation to your Lordships' House. I am sure all your Lordships hope that we shall hear frequently from both of them in the future.
To take part in a discussion on the English language in your Lordships' House, flanked by perhaps the most distinguished and eloquent practitioners of that language in any assembly in the world, requires a fair degree of courage. But, since English is spoken by more people in North America than on any other continent, perhaps it is appropriate, as suggested to me by my noble and learned friend, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who initiated this debate with such acumen, that a transatlantic voice should be heard in this debate.
My early education in English was at the hands of, for the most part, graduates of British universities. But following World War Two, I studied journalism at Columbia University in New York and later practised that profession in Canada and the United States. Hence, I am conscious of the differences not only of pronunciation but of idiomatic expression on both sides of the Atlantic.
The English language has been referred to as England's greatest export. During the years of colonial expansion, it was implanted in widely separated parts of the world, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Moore. This means that it has developed and changed in different ways in different regions. Hence one can hear the vernacular of the Highlands in Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia and the expressions of Ireland in Newfoundland. In Texas, it is all very different and all very robust.
However, I, for one, find nothing distasteful about the wide variety of usage. In fact, I think it demonstrates the flexibility of the language and the continued ability of a great variety of peoples to express themselves in its use. What I find distasteful is the degree of carelessness in the use of language to which we are exposed in the press and on radio and television. This is true not only in this country but throughout the English-speaking world. George Orwell, in a treatise entitled Politics and the English Language, listed a number of elementary rules of style. I shall not weary your Lordships with all of these, but one is, I think, of considerable importance: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print".
Today we see in print and hear over the airwaves in English-speaking countries a succession of outworn, 669 hackneyed cliches and tired old metaphors. In political articles and broadcasts, one cannot help becoming irritated by the constant use of such terms as "a U-turn" to signify some slight variation in policy by a government. Another weary old cliche is "the banana skin". How many times will an elementary error in judgment by some political party be referred to as "a banana skin"?—I hope not too much longer.
Time and again we hear about "the tip of the iceberg", "the light at the end of the tunnel" and "the end of an era". I suspect, although I cannot be sure, that some of this sloppiness, in the press at least, has been caused in part by the new technology which may have resulted in diminished control by the copy editor leading to more inaccuracies on the printed page.
The latter part of the Motion refers to the case for making English easier to learn. To a large extent, it is in the hands of the press and the electronic media to bring the language to the people—as did the monks of old. I would hope that by more careful attention to the techniques entrusted to them, they will do a better job in discharging that responsibility.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Kilbracken
My Lords, we have had two very memorable maiden speakers and I should like to begin by congratulating the noble Baroness in particular because I remember how extremely kind her mother was to the young naval airmen, of whom I was one, at Arbroath 45 years ago. The noble Baroness would have been an extremely young girl—a baby in arms, I think. Her mother was so kind to us all and I am happy to see the noble Baroness here in this House and to have had the opportunity too to hear her witty and thoughtful words.
My noble friend Lord Ardwick has already mentioned the difficulties of trying to encompass or encapsulate the English language in six minutes and I will not try. Or do I mean "I shall not try"? I think I probably should. But would that be pedantic, which is worse than being ungrammatical? I think probably it might. Or should I say I think that it probably might? On a day like this we are beset by pitfalls, but what exactly are "pitfalls"? Have I just committed a mixed metaphor? Can we be beset by them? We are in very serious danger if we presume to speak on this occasion.
We are all grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon on the Cross-Benches for putting down this Motion today. He wants to make the English language easier. He would like to do away with irregular verbs, or at least to make them much simpler. I suggest that it cannot be done, whatever the Academie Francaise or Teddy Roosevelt may have tried to do in the past. The language is something that slowly evolves and changes, subject to so many strange (there is that word again) external influences often unseen and unknown, subject to slang, American usage, journalists and the terrible potency of TV. We cannot stop this and we should not try. I believe that no one in any country has ever succeeded in imposing improvement. The secret forces at work are too powerful for us to influence them. Irregular verbs will always be with us.
Yet we all picked up the English irregular verbs quite easily, however hard we found the French 670 irregular verbs, the Latin irregular verbs and then the Greek irregular verbs which we had to learn by rote. The English irregular verbs presented no difficulty. Perhaps there is a lesson here.
I have watched and listened with fascination and delight as my five-year-old son has learnt the language over the last two or three years. Sean practically never has to be taught. He hears words being used and in some mysterious way he infers what they mean and uses them himself. The noble and learned Lord mentioned how a child may say "teached". Sometimes Sean makes mistakes: he might say to me "Has he brung it?" That is very understandable because he knows the past participle of "sing" is "sung" and he deduces that the past participle of "bring" is "brung", which it very well might be. I only have to say to him "No, Sean, has he 'brought' it," and I never have to tell him again. Surely this is the only way for anyone to learn a langauge, by living with those who speak it, and picking it up from them.
As a former sub-editor—indeed a former chief sub-editor—I know the perennial problems that arise in writing English. Hyphenation, the use of capital initials and italicisation are always difficult problems. Is a word ending in the suffix "-ise", spelt I-S-E or I-Z-E? On all these problems there are often no hard and fast rules and an ad hoc decision must be made for each publication. The use of "which" instead of "that" and the use of "will" instead of "shall" are perhaps the two commonest errors. Yet are we sure they are errors? What is strictly grammatical may not always be what I would call right. Pedantry, I hold, is worse than bad grammar. A husband should be divorced if he comes home and shouts up the stairs "Yoohoo, darling, it is I", and yet he is being perfectly grammatical. I believe that what matters is usage. Usage rules, okay?
I turn for a few seconds to statutes. We all know how terribly difficult statutes are to understand. I have tried a little to improve one or two, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, has helped. I am not against the parliamentary draftsman. My father was a draftsman. He drafted A. P. Herbert's Matrimonial Causes Bill. I know what an extremely difficult task it is. But surely Bills could be made easier for the ordinary person to understand.
At a recent Report stage, I moved an amendment to replace eight lines with one and a half lines which said exactly the same thing. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack commented that one never knows what courts will do unless things are rather spelt out for them. That meant spelling out one and a half lines into eight lines. The amendment was finally accepted when the noble and learned Lord put it down at the next stage without saying that it was my amendment. Surely there is not this necessity to spell things out with that kind of elaboration. Surely, the judges, the barristers, the magistrates and even the litigants, are a little more clever than that.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, it is characteristic of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, to have chosen such a fascinating subject for our debate tonight. I should like first to congratulate our two maiden speakers not only for what they said but for the charm with which they expressed themselves.
671 I want to urge the importance of teaching English in our schools. I hope Sir John Kingman and his committee will not be diverted into talking about the needs of society. We all know what the needs of society are. They ought to concentrate on two things. First. how do we teach children to write clear English?—not imaginative English, not spontaneous English, not regional English but clear English. Second, how do we get these principles and methods across to every language teacher and every training college and make the use of English and the use of mathematics compulsory subjects for every child so long as he or she stays at school?
What do we mean by clear English? Here is an example. I have chosen a passage which is not grotesque jargon. It is grammatical, comprehensible and only 58 words long. Unfortunately, it is damnably boring. Here it is:When the brake mechanism was operated, it became clear that there was insufficient pressure in the hydraulic system to make the caliper assembly press the two friction pads together on the disc with the firmness we expected. On examining the oil supply, we found both the quality and the level to be below those specified by the manufacturer.".That could be better expressed and clearer in 56 words:A hydraulic system works the caliper device which presses together the two friction pads on the disc. When we put on the brake, there was insufficient pressure in the system to make the brake grip as firmly as it should. So we examined the oil supply and found the quality and level below the manufacturer's specification.".How does one train teachers to teach children to make that kind of conversion? Those of us who had Latin grammar beaten into our brains and our behinds at school are too apt to think that one must be taught English grammar to write good English. But children in primary schools are not taught Latin. If one insists on teaching formal grammar the energy of the teachers will be diverted from the skills they are supposed to improve. There is no evidence that teaching formal grammar ever improved language skills. Of course to write good English one must use, in the approved way, existential sentences, non-finite clauses and ellipses and must choose one's complex modalities with taste. But for Heaven's sake do not teach children these frightful terms. One of the best reasons for learning foreign languages is that then you have to learn some grammar and you begin to learn the grammar of your own mother tongue.
It is the teachers not the children who need to be taught grammar, and then they need to be taught how to convey the ideas in grammar to their pupils. It can sometimes be done by means of simple diagrams, and this raises the question: why then was it necessary to set up this new committee and why are we still worried about the problem?
Ten years ago Lord Bullock produced a mammoth report on the subject. He recommended that standards of literacy should be monitored. They are not. Lord Bullock urged that, when teachers are trained, they must all be taught how to teach languages, regardless of their main subject. They are not. Lord Bullock wanted local authorities to receive an earmarked minimum provision for books. They do not. Ten years ago Mrs. Shirley Williams emphasised the importance of English teaching. Only the other day the Secretary 672 of State did precisely that in his Arvon speech. Why have all these reports and speeches had so little effect?
To answer that question is to indict the whole of our educational system and convict of wilful neglect those of us like myself who are in it. The first culprits are all those teachers and local councillors who say that children should write and talk as they wish and that to correct them is to impose the snobbish diction of an elite. What a wicked doctrine that is. Such people prevent children from getting a decent job when they grow up and condemn them to be unskilled labourers. Next are the racists, who, of course posing as anti-racists, argue that immigrants from Pakistan and India should be taught at school primarily the languages that they speak at home. Was there ever a better recipe for racial isolationism and hatred?
I have no time to explain why the colleges and institutes of teacher training fall down on the job, but my next culprits are the departments of English at our universities and colleges. One of the men who did most harm to the cause of writing clear English was that influential literary critic F.R. Leavis; and also his disciples, who denigrated that admirable subject, the use of English at A level. Well, not all English dons are Leavisites. Nevertheless, which departments of English take steps to make their pupils express themselves clearly and which departments of History or Economics do that? The dons do not do so, and we are guilty of what Julien Benda called le trahison des clercs.
The last enemy of good English is our elephantine bureaucracy. It is the duty of civil servants in the DES, Her Majesty's Inspectors, and the local education authorities, to implement the Secretary of State's policy. Why do they not do so? The bureaucrats seem to lack the will and knowledge and guts to do it. I hope that the noble Baroness is not going to rebuke me for attacking public servants on the grounds that they cannot reply, because I think it is the duty of the legislators to call the Executive to account.
It is not the fault of successive Secretaries of State that nothing is done. How many more decades of speeches, how many more reports are to be written. before the bureaucrats take action? Until some Permanent Secretary is prepared to give a kick to all those concerned with this matter, nothing will be done. This is the English disease. We dons, we bureaucrats, we are all so skilful in analysing what is wrong. We are perfectly hopeless in setting programmes at all levels of education to put it right. The English disease is the inability to translate what into how. And yet, what higher priority in education at all levels is there than teaching the young how to manipulate numbers and write their mother tongue?
Let us remember this. That bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant Stalin will be remembered in history for many terrible things. However, he will also be remembered for changing Russia from an illiterate society to a literate country. But for that, Russia would have been defeated by Hitler. The Churchillian exhortation should go out from the DES to every local authority, every college, every school: teach clear English—action this day.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ The Earl of Cork and Orrery
My Lords, as I expected and I dare say everyone else expected, this 673 was bound to be a debate full of treasures. A couple of treasures that merit particular attention are the two maiden speeches that we have heard. I felt enormous pleasure and, if it is not an impertinance to say so, admiration at witnessing the happily somnambulistic experience of the noble Lord who made his maiden speech. He said that he was asleep; he woke up in the middle of it—it was a remarkable tour de force and a tine speech.
As to my noble friend who made the other maiden speech, when she was speaking I realised, not for the first time perhaps, that we had been without a Lord Strange for too long. I felt in some sense in the course of that enchanting speech that the old friend of so many of us, John Strange, had come among us again. I take the greatest pleasure in saying that.
We are talking about the difficulties of English and of how we can make it easier to learn. Who, I wonder, are "we"? Who do we mean by "we" when we talk like this? Are we, the English, or perhaps the British, to set up something like a cross between the Academie Francaise, which is a fairly disastrous body incidentally, and the MCC, briefed to be the governing body of the English language with power to fabricate, formulate and promulgate amendments to the existing rules? If so, who is going to pay the slightest attention to us if we do? English is a far bigger language than that. I need hardly enlarge on that point, which has been made by practically every speaker so far, including pre-eminently the noble and learned Lord who initiated the debate.
English is by far the nearest thing to a global language ever known. For that reason, it is also far from being our own private tongue, to amend, improve and generally mess about with as we like. As to its basic structure, here, if I may, I shall quote from "The Story of English", that remarkable BBC television programmes series by Messrs McCrum, Cran and MacNeil. It was said:its global structure is backed up by massive English language training programmes, an international business that in textbooks, language courses, video programmes and video instruction—is worth hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars to the economies of the US and the UK … Dr. Robert Burchfield, chief editor of the OED, has remarked that 'any literate, educated person on the face of the globe is deprived if he does not know English' ''.That being so, before we set about lightheartedly tinkering with this colossus of a language, we might do worse than to sit in a darkened room for a bit and contemplate the sheer enormousness of what we propose.
I confess that I am a little inclined to shed a tear at the thought of poor foreigners struggling to learn our lingo. We do not, after all, as has been pointed out already, have much trouble with our genders, which I believe are unique in corresponding to sex, while the thing that has no sex—in the biological sense, that is—is neuter. Ships and boats are an exception, certainly so that a man-o'-war called "Rodney" or "Iron Duke" is referred to as "she", but it is permissible to call them "it".
Our adjectives do not have to agree in either gender or number with nouns, which is different from French, where "day" is masculine and "night" feminine; and from German, in which the au pair girl of the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, would be regarded as neuter. As 674 for our verbs, those, I think, have been disposed of already and they present very little difficulty.
If we wish to help a foreigner to use our language, we should concentrate first, I suggest, on helping him in his greatest difficulty, which, I think, if I know anything about it, would be not in speaking, in writing or in reading our language but in understanding what we say to him. Am I being insulting in wondering whether any of your Lordships has ever asked the way to the post office in a foreign country—in the local language, of course—and then been defeated by the answer? Thanks to my Russian phrase book, I can ask with some fluency, "What are the main points of interest?" or "Is there a ball at the Palace of Culture?". But as the book does not give the answers, what the hell?
I am able, or so I like to think, to order a meal in a Japanese restaurant. As long as I get it right, all is well, and I am credited with a knowledge of Japanese. But suppose the waiter launches into a series of shrill, staccato questions about what sort of raw fish, or would I like my saki hot or cold. Then I find that all I can think of to say in Japanese is, "Thank you" and "Goodbye", which may cause surprise.
Naturally, the stranger in our midst is similarly at risk. Unless he wishes to say that his four thoughtless daughters have caught thoroughly rough-sounding coughs through eating more sour doughnuts than they should, the chance is probably against his getting into the diphthong-diagraph difficulty that the noble and learned Lord postulated in his speech. Nonetheless, in replying to him we should choose our words with care and there are various tricks of speech of which we should be wary. Quite a small example comes perhaps under the heading of jokey idioms.
Years ago, probably in the time of Sherlock Holmes, the keen-eyed detective would be said to search for clues with a fine-toothed comb. Then somebody frivolously shifted the hyphen and called it a fine tooth-comb. Finally, by natural progression, it lost the adjective altogether and became a tooth-comb. Nowadays there are semi-literate people who believe that there actually exists an instrument called a toothcomb, implying, I suppose, that there are also combs that have no teeth. If one of those people were to tell a Chinaman that such an instrument would be used on his behalf, the Chinaman might be surprised to learn that the British apparently comb their teeth.
We speak of the heritage and set up great bodies to protect and defend it, but I suggest that the greatest part of the whole of our heritage is the language itself. Powerful, flexible, resilient, it has endured for centuries, evolving all the time, sometimes for the better and sometimes not, but almost never in response to deliberate interference. I say "almost never" because I think of the damage that has been done to it by the Church. In the name of making it easier to learn and comprehend (or so I understand) it has knocked the splendour out of its own glorious Liturgy, even to the extent of addressing the Divinity with less ceremony than we in your Lordships' debating Chamber use towards our fellow Peers.
Leave it alone. Let the solecisms that we hear pass with little more than a nod and a wink, because the language will be all right in the end. I beg that it be not interfered with but, above all, interfered with by government or any other statutory body.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Lord Denning
My Lords, when I read the Order Paper today I bethought myself of the great expansion of our English language. It expands with new words continually, many of them from across the Atlantic. Reading the Order Paper, I paused first at the word "AIDS". That is a new one from across the seas and everyone, I hope, understands it by now. Then one sees the words "brain drain". The debate had nothing to do with drains and little to do with brains. Then, again, we come to the "treatment of dyslexia". All these words are rushing into our language and we all ought to know what they mean.
How valuable it is for my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale to draw attention to the importance of language. Language is the vehicle of thought and expression. Whatever you think, whatever you say, you can only do it in words; and whatever subject you deal with—philosophy, politics, law, science and the rest—you can only do it in words.
Language is the vehicle of all thought and all expression; and I would join with others in saying how much—and I am proud of it—we English have done. Of the great gifts the English people have given to the world there are two special ones: the English law and the English language. And of these two the English language is the greater and has had the greatest influence on mankind. Perhaps the comparison with all the other competing languages has never been better expressed than by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his introduction to The Oxford Book of English Prose. This is how he puts it:Our fathers have, in the process of centuries, provided this realm, its colonies and wide dependencies, with a speech malleable and pliant as Attic, dignified as Latin, masculine, yet free of Teutonic gutteral, capable of being as precise as French, dulcet as Italian, sonorous as Spanish, and of captaining all these excellences to its service".There it is. I would thank not only my noble and learned friend Lord Simon, but also the noble Lord, Lord Moore, who stressed—and I have been overseas and visited many places as he has—the importance of the work done by the British Council and the BBC in expanding our English language and teaching it overseas. I would also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, for showing the beauty, the loveliness and the lightness if I may so describe it, of our language even on an occasion like this.
So, my Lords, I would not dilate on that too much except to point out that we have a vehicle here of clearness, accuracy and beauty, which we should use to the full. But how often it is debased! Often we have had occasion in this House, in the other place and among the judges, to deplore the language used by the draftsmen. Our English language is capable of being clear and intelligible and it should be so used. It is debased in some ways.
Perhaps I may draw attention to another important point which was mentioned by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. The European Community is a multilingual society with nine different languages. They are all official, and all decrees, statutes and so on have to be officially in nine different languages. Your Lordships will know how difficult it is to get the exact equivalent when they are translated—we all learnt that at school. As my noble friend said, you cannot get the 676 exact equivalent of a word or phrase when the directives and treaties are framed in French. The working language of the European Court of Justice is French. All their discussions are in French and all their judgments and arguments are in French; as are those of other institutions of the European Commission.
That is a problem to be dealt with. It is most important that we should have native-born English translators, going over to the European communites and translating the French or other languages into intelligible English. If your Lordships listen to those simultaneous translators, you will know that they do not get it right. It is not worth listening to them: they do not have the knowledge. Equally, the translations which we have from the French into English give us many problems as to interpretation. So my plea is for the teaching of the English language. Let us spread it world wide in every way we can and let it also spread to the institutions of the European Community.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Airedale
My Lords, the distinction has been well made between the two categories of learners—on the one hand the child of English-speaking parents learning English almost painlessly at its mother's knee, and, on the other hand, the foreign student learning English as his second language. He, I fear, poor fellow, has a very much harder slog. As to the first category, the child, I will only say that the quality of the instruction given does, of course, vary from case to case. There was the London mother with her family on a long journey by bus. One of the children became restive and said: "Mum, ain't we ever going to get off this bloody bus?" and Mum said: "Now then, how many times have I told you not to say 'ain't'?"
Then we come to the foreign student with his harder slog. Can we help both categories at the same time? I think we can, and I think we can impose some useful self-discipline upon ourselves if we heed the advice of Sir Ernest Gowers and stick to plain words whenever we can.
Some time ago, a Minister of the Crown, the son, I believe, of a university don, speaking from that Dispatch Box there said:The dependence of expansion on consumer uptake also puts a question mark over any estimate of job creation.".I do not know how much that meant to the foreign visitors in the Strangers' Gallery. I doubt whether it has meant very much to your Lordships so far. Let me just read it again:The dependence of expansion on consumer uptake also puts a question mark over any estimate of job creation.".I think what he was saying was that new jobs also depend on people buying more goods, and if he had been speaking off the cuff that is what he would have said. He must have been speaking from a brief.
Another Minister, speaking from another brief, I thought was rathing gilding the lily when he said:Restrictions should be swept away in order to lead to new and innovative ideas.".What does one do to people who write briefs like that? I suppose one might start by introducing them to the works of A. E. Housman. When Housman wrote,When first my way to fairI took Few pence in purse had IAnd long I used to stand and lookAt things I could not buy",677 he was not writing in monosyllables as a trick. He was instinctively writing good English.
Just the other day, I read with moderate enthusiasm a Written Answer which said that the parliamentary press was,utilising the most efficient … methods of production.".The writer recovered from that in the next sentence when he said that the Press was using the latest method of printing addresses. But he relapsed in the next paragraph when he, "envisaged no problems of waste disposal". That would not have pleased the late Lord Birkett, who, in a presidential address to the English Association, said:When I hear of targets and overall targets and global targets, and things being adumbrated or visualised or finalised or, indeed, envisaged, or circumstances eventuating or transpiring, I think of the other aim of this Association to uphold the standards of English writing and speech and I try to act accordingly when it lies in my power.".In last week's Green Paper on radio, we read:Public service broadcasting should provide geographical universality of coverage.I think they mean that it should be available everywhere. In Guildhall there is a memorial to William Pitt on which Canning had inscribed the words, "He died poor". One of the aldermen took exception to this and said,Wouldn't it have been more dignified to say, 'he expired in indigent circumstances' "?More dignified perhaps, but not more informative to the foreign visitors to Guildhall.
One can go on giving examples of this kind. There was a report in The Times in January of a road official saying that a certain section of the A I was almost 200 per cent. worse than the average. Would it not have been more effective to have divided by 100 and said "nearly twice as bad"?
My time is probably nearly up and I do not want to go on giving examples. If I had one piece of specific advice to give to learners of English, I think I should say: Whatever you do, try always to attach your participles properly. Never find yourself writing anything like this, which appeared in Private Eye:Having been effectively vandalised and set on fire, the Diocese of Durham decided to declare the building redundant.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, due to the rapid ending of the last debate and a long-standing business engagement elsewhere in the House, I was unable to hear the opening speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and I apologise to him for any discourtesy. But I have heard the noble and learned Lord speak in this House on a number of occasions and know the tremendous help he has been and the tremendous contribution he has made towards the Queen's English being spoken and written properly in both Houses of Parliament.
I intervene in this debate because, like many of your Lordships, I have family in the profession of teaching. My elder daughter went to teacher training college in the East Midlands and, for some years before she had a family of her own, taught in a comprehensive school in what I suppose one might call downtown Nottingham, where there were a number of 678 nationalities and English was a somewhat fascinating subject on occasions.
Examples have been given of the way that English has been maltreated, and of course our statutes at times are no exception to this. One reads of traumatic experiences and cosmetic situations. What relevance that has to the perfumery industry, I do not know. But we have all these expressions which come from high places, and if they come from such places as the High Court of Parliament, as some expressions do, it is no surprise that our schools at times—as a number of your Lordships have said—are not very well versed in the writing, reading or understanding of our English language.
The Motion of the noble and learned Lord dwells on the case for making English easier to learn. In the late 1930s when I was at school, I remember learning French from the wife of the headmaster, who was herself French. It is out of order to quote a foreign language in your Lordships' House. However, in that class only French could be spoken. It was made clear that, in the 40 minutes of that class, one could not leave it for even the direst needs unless one spoke properly pronounced French.
If one travels in Scandinavia, as I have done several times, and if one is stranded, for example, in Northern Lapland in Finland with a broken-down motor car, a Berlitz phrase book can be very useful. I mention that because my wife and I recently went to hear a Finnish choir in London. They sang "Drink to me only with Thine Eyes" in almost perfect English. I was a chorister at school for a few years and my wife sings with our local choral society. What would happen if I had to sing in Finnish does not bear thinking about.
The problem is that as a nation we are lax in the speaking of English. When we go overseas, we take it for granted that the people of almost every other country speak English. What is worse, the British Broadcasting Corporation now pronounces the capitals of some countries in a most deplorable manner. I sometimes go to Helsinki. I once asked a top person in the BBC: "Where is Hels-i-n-k-i?". He said: "It is the capital of Finland". I said: "The capital of Finand is H-e-lsinki. If a member of the Finnish broadcasting corporation talked about Lon-don, what would you say?". He was rather taken aback. I mention that because we ought to be able at least when we go to other countries to pronounce the basic words which we need in a proper manner even when we cannot speak the language.
There are two persons who always speak or spoke English quite outstandingly. One was the late Stuart Hibbert, whose reading of the news in the 1920s, 1 930s and early 1940s was quite exemplary both in the tone of his voice and in his marvellous English. The other person is Alistair Cooke. He comes from Manchester but his "Letter from America" is a marvellous example of concise English, of saying what one means and of saying briefly what many people would take two hours to say. I believe that there is a message here and that, if nothing else, one hopes the debate will cause English to be spoken in a clearer manner.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Kings Norton
My Lords, let me first add a word of congratulation to what has already been said 679 so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, and my noble friend Lady Saltoun about the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. I thought that their speeches were quite delightful and I hope that we shall hear them many times in the future.
I do not think that I shall introduce any new ideas into this debate, which has ranged so freely over a wide area and which has been dealt with so thoroughly by my 14 predecessors. However, there are one or two things I want to say and perhaps one or two of the ideas expressed can be looked at a little differently. I shall confine myself to the last part of the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon; I think it would be helpful, particularly to foreigners, if our language could be a little easier to learn.
Foreigners learn our language partly from talking to us and partly from listening to us. Consequently, it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, has just said, that we speak our language correctly. Unfortunately, many of us—I might almost say most of us—do not. Even more unfortunately, some of our broadcasters, with large audiences overseas, fall into error. We too often hear "from you and I" and "different than". Too often do we anticipate when we should do no more than expect. Frequently we allege we have an alibi when we have only an excuse.
I was entirely with my noble friend Lady Saltoun when she made her plea for the teaching of grammar in schools. I was going to say the same thing myself. However, I was frightened by my noble friend Lord Annan and I must modify what I was going to say to, "the teaching of English in schools". However, in using the word "grammar" in my original draft, I meant the teaching of the correct use of English words. I do not think that even in the few remaining grammar schools is grammar taught. But I was taught grammar and I benefited from that enormously. I believe it should be a compulsory subject, as are reading, writing and arithmetic, in schools.
At the same time, I believe that more senior students should be taught the merits of conciseness and precision. Today, largely through American influence, we are becoming long-winded. We say, for example, "I am hopeful" instead of, "I hope". I even read the other day in one of my favourite periodicals of an aeroplane that has, "a very high-speed capability", when the writer meant, "it can go very fast". I do not think that we can overestimate the importance of teaching English in our schools.
Our language is always growing. New words find their way into it. I believe that we should be very critical of their acceptance. In that, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, who introduced this debate so eloquently. I do not know whether he meant to make quite the same suggestion as I wish to make, which is that there should be established a high-powered council for monitoring the growth of English. I am not suggesting that such a council should have mandatory powers. However, it would from time to time pronounce opinions on verbal innovations, and those opinions should be given wide publicity. We might then reject horrors like "disinformation", which, if it means anything at all, means "lies". We might even reduce the use of the verb "to debrief". We have now reached the stage when a person who has 680 never been briefed, such as a released Russian dissident, can be debriefed! We already have perfectly appropriate words such as "question", "interrogate" and "examine". We do not need to add to the list a clumsy alternative.
I believe that such an influential council, which may be the sort of body which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, was envisaging, could help to maintain the precision of our language. That objective is vital because, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has already said, language is the instrument of thought.
Such matters are of importance to the learners of our language with whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, is particularly concerned. For the learner, our language has another characteristic which is more important to him than it is to us. That characteristic is our spelling and some of our spelling is very strange. I think that the time has come for some modest reform. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said, it is absurd that the letters "o-u-g-h" should be capable of so many kinds of pronunciation. It is irrational that "aught" and "ought" should be pronounced the same. Surely "should" and "mould" should rhyme. Could this council, with the monitoring of innovation as its first priority, reform just some of the more outrageous of our spelling inconsistencies as its second term of reference? We do not want revolutionary change, but could it not, from time to time, issue new spellings to be regarded as acceptable alternatives to the time-honoured anachronisms?
For our benefit and to help the learner, we must speak our language correctly. Our broadcasters in particular should speak correctly. Some do, but not all. As I remarked so long ago in the debate we had in November 1979, the BBC once had a Director of the Spoken Word. I think that is a post, both in the BBC and the independent authority, which could well be revived.
This is the third debate that we have had in my time here on the subject of the English language. We had one in November 1979, one in January 1981 and this debate today. It will be a very good thing if from time to time we have such debates and criticise our language in the hope that we can keep its quality as it should be.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Elwyn-Jones
My Lords, I should like to begin by expressing our gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for so felicitously introducing tonight the subject of English teaching. I also congratulate the noble Lord and the noble Baroness who made two absolutely superb maiden speeches; namely, the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. I suppose it is a mark of the flexibility of our language that although the noble Baroness is the mother of six children nevertheless she can properly be called a maiden speaker on the occasion of this debate.
I began to learn English at the age of five in the Lakefield Elementary School in Llanelli. I hope the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, will forgive me; I know that English is a great language, but so is the Welsh language. Welsh is far older, of course. It is 681 the oldest language in Europe, a beautiful language in its poetry and in its literature as the millennia have shown. However, tonight, I gladly praise the English language which I have been trying to learn ever since the age of five.
English has been rightly called our greatest single national asset. Curiously enough, it was rather a late developer. In the 16th century King Charles of Spain is recorded as saying:I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my, horse.".There is not a mention of English at all. Then, in 1582, Richard Mulcester wrote:Our English Tung is of small reach, it stretcheth no further than this island of ours, naie not there over all.".Only about five million people spoke English then. As we all know, gradually, it encompassed the world. Already by 1602 Samuel Daniel was writing:And who, in time, knows whither may be sentThe treasure of our tongue, to what strange shoresThis gain of our best glory shall be lentT'enrich unknowing nations with our stores.".How prophetic that was. By then, or shortly after, Shakespeare had already written several of his plays.
The English language is difficult but many who speak different tongues have learnt it. It was Arnold Bennett who described the Oxford English Dictionary as the longest sensational serial ever written. However, it is a language that has given an abundance of choice—for the lawyer to be obscure, if it is convenient to be obscure—of flexibility, of subtlety and, indeed, of simplicity. It can be made simple, but it is not easy. Indeed, in the report by Sir Alan Bullock to which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred, it was indicated that simplicity of language is very important. The report contains a passage which reads:We believe that language acceptance grows incrementallyPresumably, that means it grows.through an interaction of writing, talk, reading and experience, the body of the resulting work forming an organic whole.".May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that that was not written by a civil servant but by an academic, if I am not greatly mistaken. However, let me not be provocative on this peaceful linguistic occasion. At any rate, it is not easy, but it can be done.
What I suppose we all tend to forget is that the process of communication is important not only for what is said but perhaps, even more important, for what is understood. The language is admirable if it can be done simply but, as I say, it is not easy. Nor, indeed, is it easy to be brief. I remember on almost my second day as Attorney-General I received a letter from one of the parliamentary draftsmen. I do not know if it was an original observation but it said:I am so sorry that this letter is so long. If I had had time I could have made it shorter".We all sympathise with that.
As the House has learned already, the proposed committee of inquiry, which I welcome, is not the first. Sir Alan Bullock issued a report in 1975, after three years of deliberation. I am sorry to say that it was never discussed in Parliament. I hope that that will not be the fate of the next report. The report concluded:The standards of writing, speaking and reading can and should be raised".682 It urged, as we are, I believe, rightly urging today,the need for simplification of style".The report looked, among other things, at the difficulties of spelling, which have been referred to from time to time. It concluded that English shares with French the disadvantage of being among the most complex in its spelling pattern. The majority of the committee remain unconvinced—another term of art we can perhaps do without—by the case for national reform of the system of spelling in English. They thought the issues involved too complex and made no recommendations.
One recommendation which was made—and here I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, if he will allow me to do so, and he cannot really stop me—was that every school with pupils whose original language is not English should adopt a positive attitude to their bilingualism and whenever possible help maintain and deepen their knowledge of their mother tongue. The mother tongue is not something to be ashamed of. It should be cherished. It is a product of generations, of decades and sometimes of millennia.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for allowing me to intervene. I was referring to immigrants to this country. Of course, the noble and learned Lord has the Welsh language in mind, but it is the English who are the immigrants, not the Welsh.
§ Lord Elwyn-Jones
My Lords, I am glad to hear the noble Lord admit that he is an immigrant. It is not always popularly spoken of in that manner by Welshmen. However, I am not speaking in any sense of an awareness of the greatness, the superior greatness, of the Welsh. Of course, they are as good as anyone else—no better and no worse than that. But I must not allow myself to be distracted. What was said by the Bullock report in regard to that matter is commendable.
I am told that owing to the economy of earlier speakers I have the permission of the Minister to take a little more time than I would normally be allowed, but I will not abuse it. I commend the Plain English Campaign which nominates Golden Bull awards for official gobbledegook. I regret to say, having acknowledged the generosity of the noble Baroness, that this year the award went to the Department of Education and Science for a letter to teachers' pay negotiators which read:Burnham Category II/III courses may or may not be advanced and poolable. A Burnham Category course which is not poolable is not poolable only because it is not advanced, i.e. it does not require course approval as an advanced course. It is therefore wrong to describe it as a 'non-poolable advanced (non-designated) course'. Non-poolable courses are non-advanced by definition. I think that the problem you have described probably results from confusion here".That is indeed a masterpiece. However, lawyers, too, have been known to err and I hope that the House will give me a moment's grace and heed a famous observation of Lord Justice Harman when, as a chancery judge, he made a judgment on an issue which turned on the meaning of "a statutory instrument". He said:To reach a conclusion on this matter involved the court in wading through a monstrous legislative morass. staggering from683stone to stone and ignoring the marsh gas exhaling from the forest of schedules lining the way on each side. I regarded it at one time, I must confess, as a Slough of Despond through which the court would never drag its feet, but I have, by leaping from tussock to tussock as best I might, eventually, pale and exhausted, reached the other side where I find myself, I am glad to say, at the same point as that arrived at with more agility by Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls".English is a great language and it is great to see it laughed at from time to time, even by lawyers.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Baroness Hooper
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation after—dare I say it?—the tour de force of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, when he made his contribution, apart from remembering the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, on the problems attendant on reading a brief.
However, I welcome the introduction of this debate by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The English language is indeed a great treasure and, moreover, one which does not need to be hidden away to preserve its value. We have been reminded of the extent to which English is spoken throughout the world as the mother tongue in English-speaking countries and as a second or foreign language in very many other countries. I am sure that we are all most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for providing this opportunity for a reaffirmation of the importance of the English language.
The debate has also focused attention on the learning of the language, whether it should be made easier and how that can be accomplished. It is some six years since the House last debated this theme and I believe that the debate then addressed the question of whether simplification of the English language would advance the cause of high standards or result in linguistic chaos. On that occasion there were very many views expressed about what constitutes good English, and about the desirability and feasibility of attempts to reform the English language. This afternoon, we have heard many more fresh and intriguing arguments on these themes. It has been a particular pleasure to hear the views of my noble friend, Lady Strange and the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, in their maiden speeches. I too should like to congratulate them both and say how much I look forward to hearing more from them on this and many other themes in the future.
Many noble Lords have argued—and I doubt if any would disagree with them—that improvement in standards of communication in English would be a great benefit. The question is how that improvement can be attained. Some believe that what is required is reform of spelling and grammar so that English can be more easily learned, whether by children or foreigners. We have heard many suggestions as to the types of reform that might be adopted. Gaining agreement to reform and bringing it about—not just in this country but in the whole of the English-speaking world—would be a formidable task, however hard the French have tried to prove that it is possible in their case. Changes in language and in language usage of course take place all the time in a living language but they do so naturally and gradually. I am not convinced that attempts to regulate or direct that process would 684 achieve the desired results. Indeed, I am inclined to think that English would not be as universally spoken as it is if it were not that it is already so much more simple and flexible than many other languages.
Even if it were possible to wave a wand and reform or simplify English spelling and grammar across the world, would that be desirable? The richness and subtlety of the English language which has been so vividly and richly illustrated this afternoon are matters of which we are rightly proud, and many people would be sorry to see them lost even in the interests of greater simplicity.
The Government are therefore concentrating their efforts not on trying to change the English language but on trying to improve the way that it is taught. Our aim is that all young people, whatever their ability, should leave school able to use the written and spoken word accurately and effectively. We are also concerned that they should understand how their language works. Over the last 20 years or so schools have progressively ceased to teach the rules of English grammar as my generation was taught them. But if children are to be able to communicate effectively, they need to be able to examine and explain different ways of expressing meaning, thought and feeling through the language they use. The gap that has been left by the decline in formal grammar teaching must be filled. I therefore note with interest the comments on compulsory teaching of grammar that were made so forcibly by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, in particular.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science also regards that as a priority and that is why he has recently established the high level independent committee of inquiry to which reference has already been made, to advise on what pupils should know about the English language. The committee is chaired by Sir John Kingman, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, and has a distinguished membership drawn from education, industry and the arts.
The committee has already invited evidence from anyone with views on how English should be taught in schools, and in particular on the needs of society in present-day England as they relate to an individual's ability to communicate in speech and in writing; to the skills of literacy and communication generally needed in a rapidly changing world; and to the training, both initial and in-service, of the country's teachers in relation to those needs. I hope that that responds to the point made so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. The Committee also asks for information in relation to English language teaching in the primary, middle and secondary phases of schooling.
I am sure that the Kingman Committee will wish to study the views that have been expressed by noble Lords today, which are highly relevant to its concerns. I shall make a point of ensuring that the report of today's debate is drawn to the committee's attention.
The committee of inquiry is one of a number of initiatives aimed at improving the English curriculum in schools and the approaches to teaching. We have taken another important step in establishing criteria for the new GCSE examination in English, which will promote good syllabuses. The School Curriculum Development Committee, which is jointly funded by 685 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the local authorities, is sponsoring a project to improve writing skills. The Government are also making available education support grants for innovative work aimed at developing pupils' use of the spoken word. We believe that each of these initiatives will contribute to our overall aim of helping young people to have a better command of their language.
A number of speakers have made reference to the work of the British Council in teaching overseas, and I strongly support what has been said about its valuable work. The British Council plays a very important role in promoting not only the use of the English language but an interest in English literature throughout the world. Indeed, in my own recent experience in South America last year in both Bogota and Quito I found the British Council's energetic and enthusiastic teams increasing their English teaching facilities on what was largely a self-financing basis. It was a very satisfactory and salutary experience. I hope and believe that the council's efforts will continue to bear fruit.
Through its World Service and the programmes which it sells profitably abroad, the BBC performs an ever more important role. I should like to acknowledge the work of other voluntary bodies in this field, especially to name but one, the English Speaking Union.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, asked me about illiteracy. That is a difficult question because adult illiteracy cannot easily be quantified and consequently the available evidence is not always consistent. The National Child Development Study survey of 1981 found that 10 per cent. of the 23 year-olds asked said that they had had reading problems since leaving school. Of those, 3 per cent. said that those problems had made things difficult for them in everyday life. A recent MORI survey of a sample of the population of Rochdale found that 10 per cent. of teenagers asked said that they had some problems with reading, and 16 per cent. had some problems with spelling. Of the adults asked, 7 per cent. had some problems with reading and 13 per cent. had some problems with spelling. The findings of the Department of Education and Science's Assessment of Performance Unit suggest that only a small minority of pupils aged 15 have great difficulty with reading or writing.
Local education authorities and voluntary bodies provide a wide range of learning opportunities for adults who lack basic skills in numeracy and literacy. The Government attempt to stimulate them by further developing adult basic skills provision through funding the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit. Its grant has been increased from some £470,000 in 1980–81 to over £2 million in 1986-87—a fourfold increase in cash terms, and clearly a move in the right direction.
Another aspect of English teaching to which the Government attach importance, and one to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, drew our attention, is ensuring that those members of our ethnic minority communities for whom English is not their mother tongue should be fully fluent in speaking and writing it. We believe that we should respect the pupils' ability to speak their mother tongue and should 686 recognise it as an asset. The Department of Education and Science hopes shortly to issue a consultation document on the teaching of ethnic minority languages as an option at secondary level for those who wish it.
However, the prime responsibility of the education system towards ethnic minority pupils is, and I believe must be, to ensure that they have a complete command of English so that they are not disadvantaged in finding jobs or of playing a full part in society. The Government give a great deal of direct assistance to that by means of Section 11 grants to help local education authorities provide extra teachers of English to meet the needs of ethnic minority pupils.
Another topic on which we have had some useful suggestions is that of oral English. We tend to think about people's command of the English language in terms of reading and writing, but there is an equally important dimension which many of your Lordships have demonstrated today—that of speaking. I do not just mean public speaking on occasions such as this, nor am I thinking narrowly of good pronunciation or standard dialect, to which some speakers have referred. I mean it rather in the sense referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, among others. I have in mind the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, accurately and effectively through the spoken word in a wide variety of situations, formal and informal, face-to-face and indirectly, nationally and internationally.
That demands a capacity to adjust content, style, tone and register to meet the needs of the audience and the purpose and nature of the occasion. Careful listening must go hand in hand with effective speaking, as so many have said, but perhaps none so tellingly as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones.
There is clear evidence from the Assessment of Performance Unit and Her Majesty's inspectors that schools do not pay enough attention to developing speaking and listening skills among pupils. A much wider range of oral work; for example, conversation, collaborative discussion, factual reporting, and persuasive argument need to be practised throughout primary and secondary education not only in English lessons but, as again as been said, in mathematics, science, the humanities and other subjects.
The Government will encourage that development through new education support grants to selected local education authorities for "oracy" work, starting next month. The School Curriculum Development Committee has also just decided to launch a major project on oracy this year—I must confess that it is a slightly unfortunate sounding word—and the new GCSE examinations will increasingly assess oral as well as written competence.
The noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, and others mentioned the possibility of a national language commission to advise on language reform. That interesting suggestion was put forward during the debate in 1981. My noble friend Lady Young replying on that occasion raised a number of doubts. She pointed to the difficulty which the proposed commission would have in coming to an agreement on a reform programme and the even greater difficulty that the commission would have in persuading others that its ideas were right. She referred to the problem of 687 a commission based in this country gaining the international acceptance which would be necessary. I believe that to a large extent those points remain valid.
We all have our pet hates as regards the use and misuse of the English language. We have had some interesting examples during the debate. My preoccupation is that collective nouns shall take the singular. I therefore assure your Lordships that I shall try to ensure that the Government gives its attention, in response to the calls from all sides of your Lordships' House, to its duty and responsibility in this matter and particularly in its own use of plain English.
Ultimately, however, standards in the use of English will depend on how greatly they are valued by the nation as a whole. It is essential to stimulate and maintain public interest in the promotion of universal literacy. I believe that the debate has provided a welcome and timely opportunity for this House to play its part in that process. I again thank your Lordships for your many, varied and most entertaining contributions.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, even more than usual, it seems to me that the contributions to this debate have been authoritative, varied and entertain-ing. I should like to thank all your Lordships who have contributed to it and I should like particularly to associate myself with the tributes whch have so rightly been paid to the outstanding maiden speeches with which your Lordships have been favoured.
The only substantive part of my Motion is "for Papers". As any papers I might receive would be full of solecisms, which would offend most of your Lordships, and full of absurd spellings and grammar, which would offend my noble friend Lord Kings Norton and myself, I beg to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.