The English used to be proud of knowing a language other than their own. Not any more.
During the recent French presidential elections and the subsequent appointment of a new ministerial cabinet, journalists noted the linguistic competence of that country’s politicians. People joked that with Emmanuel Macron, France now had a leader who spoke better English than the American president. And the French prime minister, finance minister, and defence minister all speak fluent German. Despite ferociously defending their own language, France clearly takes its role in Europe seriously.
However, linguistic competence is only part of the story. High-level negotiations rarely depend on the savoir-parler of politicians, but much more on the skills of professional translators, interpreters, and diplomats. Even so, a good command of a language does help when it comes to cultural niceties.
Yet, Great Britain is lagging behind. “Brexit and an Anglosphere prison” in The Guardian’s view on languages and the British (3 November 2017) notes:
“Modern Britain has a decent tradition of nurturing minority languages. But Britons have long been getting more parochial about speaking foreign ones. Three-quarters of UK residents can’t hold a conversation in any language other than English. This linguistic monoculture would be even more hegemonic if it were not for bilingual migrants. It reflects many things, but the decline in language teaching is one of the most important. GCSE entries in most foreign languages tend to fall each year. A long decline in the numbers with language qualifications has translated into a loss of those able to teach them.”
It is cultural arrogance to think that, because English has become an international language, other languages have ceased to matter. Horizons expand by knowing the literature, music, and art of other cultures and the art of communication itself benefits from knowing how other languages create meaning. And yet, as The Guardian article also points out:
“Across the European Union, just over half of all students (51%) study two or more foreign languages. In Finland, France, Romania and Slovakia the proportion studying two or more languages is 99%, and in Luxembourg a heady 100%. In Britain, by contrast, the figure is a dispiriting 5%.”
The British Council’s Survey Report “Language Trends 2016/17” includes a similar lament:
“For decades, school exchanges and trips abroad organised by school languages departments have provided pupils with valuable first-hand experience of the language and culture being studied in the classroom. More often than not, they have presented pupils with their first taste of using another language in a real context and have not only given pupils a tremendous boost of confidence but inspired future learning and a love of the language. These are now threatened by a number of factors, including funding and the reluctance to allow pupils out of school because of the demands of other courses. There also appears to have been a cultural shift in which teachers note a growing reluctance on the part of parents and pupils to host ‘strangers’ in their home or for pupils to be accommodated with unknown families abroad.”
In 67 countries, English has official status as the primary language and in 27 countries as a second language. Some 1,500 million people worldwide speak English, but that is no cause for complacency or for Great Britain to abandon a long-term investment in foreign language teaching.
While a person can be silent in several languages, knowing one language well can avoid a certain awkwardness or, as the French say, ayant les deux pieds dans le même sabot.