Language skills: novelty or necessity?

The British are notoriously insular in their thinking. From the hands-off (or, perhaps more accurately, “Eww, get off me!”) approach of the  government’s current attitude towards the EU to our fear of foreign food, something in our national identity often seems to make us incompatible with anything beyond the coastline of our cosy little islands. So when I tell people in my home country that I speak 3 foreign languages, the response usually ranges from amazement to downright confusion. Why would I want to do that? How do I manage it? Do I not get them mixed up?

While I could not, in all honesty, answer “no” to the last question, years of this type of reaction have not left my ego unscathed. At one point in my over-zealous youth, I even began to believe my own hype. It was true that very few others seemed to have this ability to interpret the mysteries of foreign tongues. In school, while others struggled with the concepts of subordinate clauses and adjectival phrases, I lapped up the German subjunctive as if it were a delicious northern gravy. Perhaps I was special, a superhuman, a God walking among mere mono-lingual mortals?

Then I came to Germany, and my newly inflated ego came crashing down to Earth. I knew my German wasn’t perfect, but I had arrived secure in the knowledge that I had an exclusive skill. Thanks to my language prowess, I would be able to communicate with the locals, and they with me. So imagine my shock when, in the first week of my Erasmus semester in Berlin, I strolled into the Internet café around the corner from my flat and asked for a computer in German, only to be told “Number twelve’s free.”

I was stunned. After years spent in a blissful cocoon where language skills were a treasured rarity, I had now emerged to the wider world to discover that the abilities I had been studying hard to acquire were readily available to staff in corner shops, as if I had awoken from some kind of cryogenic sleep to a future where everyone was born with fluent knowledge of five foreign languages embedded in their brains. Maybe it was the easy way the words had tripped off the man’s tongue, but I was actually offended. He had heard me utter but one sentence, yet in a fraction of a second he had assessed my German, found it wanting and decided to reply instead in a language he could be sure I would understand.

It didn’t end there. Over the coming weeks, I suffered the same experience in other shops. When I told people I studied languages, instead of the awe to which I had become accustomed, I received a distinct sense that my audience was underwhelmed. Once or twice, I was asked “And what else?” What else? I had been led to believe that languages were impressive enough in their own right. Clearly I was mistaken: a few weeks later, I acquired a new flatmate, a German who spoke very passable English and Spanish, even though he had never studied them at university level. He was by no means unique in Germany, he assured me. Then he asked if we could speak English at home, so he could practise.

Understandably, he was a little surprised when I refused. So I explained to him my difficulties in conducting the most menial of transactions in the language I had come here to study – how I had become increasingly frustrated at every turn by jovial natives just as comfortable speaking my language as I was speaking theirs. He smiled as it dawned on him that this wasn’t normal where I came from, probably amused at my naivety and bruised ego. In Germany, he explained, the education system places a lot of focus on languages. What is more, in stark contrast to the UK, people actually want to learn them; they enjoy watching American films, listening to British music – and they recognise the importance of multi-lingualism in the increasingly global context of modern business. All those people replying to me in English when I was trying to buy beer didn’t mean to insult my intelligence – they were merely using the opportunity to practise on me. Besides, Berlin is so full of tourists and “phrasebook” German that English is often the quickest means of negotiating with non-natives.

This calmed and reassured me. It made sense, of course. These people thought the same way as me: they saw language as a valuable part of modern life, a tool as essential in the modern employment market as word processing skills. My self-esteem had taken a hit, but I now saw that skills in foreign languages were rare in the UK not because they represented an unusual talent, but because, as a result of its history and geographical limitations, much of the nation still saw interaction with other countries as largely unnecessary, at least on a day-to-day basis.

This attitude is still prevalent today, though it is slowly changing. A government proposal to make foreign languages a statutory requirement in the 7-11 age group starting next year is said to have been met with “overwhelming” support. In my eyes, this cannot come a moment too soon – the earlier children become aware of other languages and cultures, the less likely they are to retain the blinkered approach that still hobbles many British attitudes. As the German system recognises, the global village is already upon us, and we need to be as open and flexible to changes in the world order as possible. With the rise in international status of countries such as China, in twenty years’ time English may no longer enjoy the same position as the world’s “default” language that it does today.

While I enjoy the exclusive feeling of being one of a select group of Brits who can communicate in languages other than their own, it is now obvious to me that this national deficiency is not only a result of centuries of insular thinking, but also a reinforcement of the same attitudes. Learning other languages opens our minds to other cultures, other ways of thinking, and without them the UK will remain trapped in the same vicious circle, increasingly isolated from its neighbours. A small set of islands treading water off the coast of mainland Europe while the world passes it by.

I’m not a particularly patriotic man, but that’s not the future I would want for my country. So, Brits, get out there and embrace the world. You never know, you might even like it. I did.

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20 Responses to Language skills: novelty or necessity?

  1. Mike .. yes, that one says:

    I’d say that the British these days are far less insular than say, 20 years ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/blog/2007/jul/26/frenchvotebritishthemosta), so I don’t think that the culture we have and a lack of languages are necessarily linked. I think it’s also a stereotype that we are inward facing too. As with most things, broad generalisations are usually wrong.

    As always, there is more than likely a myriad of factors in people not learning a second language in the UK. First of all, the school education system for languages is awful unless you have a natural knack for learning languages. If you fall behind slightly in a few classes then invariably you will be left behind. At least, in my experience, this is what happened. I initially had a great enthusiasm for learning German, however, when I started to fall behind it became difficult to keep up the whole experience was just frustrating. As a result I tended to focus on Maths, Science and English as these were the subjects which were definitely required in the “real world” (read: getting a job). If I didn’t learn German or French then it was no big deal, I wouldn’t be inhibited in the outside world.

    We’re also not as exposed to foreign media as people in Europe are exposed to English based media. I’m sure that European countries have great media industries themselves but I doubt they deal anything even close to the media output that America has (be it Film, TV or Music). As a result, there’s more of an incentive to learn English so that this media can be understood. WIth such easy access to English media it also means that they have a good chance to practice.

    Primarily it’s the fact that other nations want to speak English which inhibits us. If we want to communcate with everyone in Europe in their native language then you would have to learn a lot of languages just to do this. So, just picking one language can seem rather redundant as you can only speak to people from one nation and they are likely to speak English anyway. English is the common ground (for now) so it doesn’t make too much sense to invest your time in learning a foreign language that you’re hardly ever going to use.

    I doubt this is confined to just the UK either. How many people in other English speaking countries like the US, Ireland, Australia and Canada have a second language?

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t be making more of an effort. The proposals for more language learning in schools is great and hopefully this will help. Lord knows, school is where language education went wrong and so hopefully getting children in their earlier years to learn will help them when they do finally reach high school.

    • kolyma42 says:

      Wow, you wrote almost as much as I did there! Good points too. Obviously we’re not as insular in our thinking as we once were, but I think much of the country is still affected by that kind of attitude. it’s less prevalent in out generation, but many people will get it from older members of their family – it’s just a matter of how they respond to that in the face of other evidence which, with the internet, cheap flights and more disposable income than young people have ever had before, is now widely available to them.

      Language learning isn’t going to solve that all on its own, either, but I think it would go a long way to helping. You’re right about the education system and the way languages are taught too. Introducing languages at a younger age should certainly help – studious indicate that it’s easier to learn language when you’re younger, as your brain and speech muscles aren’t set as strongly on one grammatical structure or set of sounds to pronounce. I also feel it’s important for kids to be introduced to the idea while they still see learning as “fun”, instead of being presented with an entirely new subject at the same time as they are trying to adapt to a new environment where fitting in is everything, and no-one wants to seem like a “swot” for fear of getting bullied. However, like you suggest, maybe the methods themselves also need to be adapted to allow for different learning styles and speeds.
      I also realise that this isn’t limited to the UK, though I don’t know the extent to which it is prevalent in Australia or the USA, for example. That’s probably a debate for another day. Though it’s worth remembering the circumstances there are different, as people in most parts of those countries don’t live as close to places with a different mother tongue as those in the UK, and certainly aren’t as easily exposed to the array of languages that we are in Europe.

    • Welsh penguin says:

      Loving your stuff – but it’s England-centric: my kids have been bi-lingual since age 3 – and we’re not even Asians !You are right about UK language teaching though: I still hate all things French (except their rugby and their films)
      Still, dai iawn, bach 🙂

      • kolyma42 says:

        Thanks! Yep, it’s necessarily England-centric because that’s what I know – I try to tackle things from other perspectives wherever possible, but only when I know my arguments have a good founding. I don’t want to assume how things are or how people see things in other countries.

  2. Mark says:

    YOU MEAN SHOUTING AND WAVING MY ARMS AROUND ISN’T A SUITABLE WAY TO COMMUNICATE WITH ‘FOREIGNERS’?

  3. Ashlie says:

    I think a lot of what you said is true. I had the same experience with Chileans speaking English to me (not that so many of them speak English) but it no longer bothers me.

    I think another part of the problem is which European language to learn? There are very few which allow you to communicate with more than one nation; unlike English. This is unlike the the US who have a whole continent on their doorstep that they could communiacte with by only learning one language. In my experience the UK is better than the US and Australia in learning foreign languages.

    That said, I whole heartedly agree that we should learn foreign languages. It´s good for the soul and allows you to understand your own language better. One thing´s for sure if we learn foreign languages our English grammar will imporve too — this is something which is also sorely lacking!

    All the best!

    Ashlie

    • kolyma42 says:

      Thanks for the reply, Ashlie! I think you’re right there – it’s much easier for us to disregard, say, Italian if we have no intention of ever going to Italy. On the other hand, the lack of an obvious default should leave us with a greater choice – something for everyone? But yrs, languages need to be marketed as transferrable skills instead of specific ones. I disputed history to A-level on a similar basis, and while knowledge of the Russian revolution may never have directly helped my career, my reasoning and debating skills certainly benefited.

  4. Brigita says:

    Great post. I’m a linguist and recently started researching multilingualism. I agree with Mike about the reasons why a lot of native English speakers don’t see the need to learn foreign languages. I think we shouldn’t see languages as mere means of communication; speaking several languages gives one a different view of the world, or as Doris Sommer would say: multilingualism is essential for democratic view of the world. Plus, there’s a special joy in discovering new languages and their idiosyncracies, or making a fool of oneself mispronouncing words. 🙂

    • kolyma42 says:

      Thanks Brigita! More people need to realise how fun and rewarding languages can be, both personally and academically. It’s all about the new perspectives they open up – the extra communication possibilities are just a bonus 🙂

  5. Luciana says:

    Great blog! I couldn’t agree more with the reasons given for learning foreign languages. Even though I am not a professional, I love learning new languages and I have found that this skill (or should I say interest or passion?) results very fruitful in many aspects of life, from leisure to work.
    I haven’t found many things as rewarding as being able to have a complete (and absolutely understandable!) conversation with someone in their own language or to read a book in the language it was originally written. I believe that being receptive to foreing languages and cultures open a whole new world of possibilites.
    Looking forward to your next post!
    PS: I apologize in advance for any grammar mistakes. My justification being that I am not a native English speaker 🙂

  6. I really appreciate your blog! You might like the following quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the frontiers of my world.” (Die Grenzen meiner Sprache sind die Grenzen meiner Welt) – it’s so incredibly true. To be honest, it is the easier way to use English as a lingua franca wherever you go, but you’re never going to thoroughly understand a culture and a people when you can’t speak the language. So yay for your attitude!

    Liebe Grüße von Wien nach Berlin!

    • kolyma42 says:

      Nice quote, thanks! I see you posted a similar idea recently. Good thinking! For me, a “Sprachgefühl” is more to do with the passion for languages that drives you to put in the hard work required to learn them. Sure, you can have a talent for it, but that doesn’t mean it takes no effort!

      • Yes sir, a question of passion it definetly is 🙂 By the way, I’m just working on a post about learning minority languages … it might be of interest for you, too, as any language seems to be a minority language from an English-speaking point of view 😉

        PS. May I add your blog to your link-list?

  7. kolyma42 says:

    Absolutely, thank you! I’m going to add a list of favourite pages to this sometime soon, so I’ll make sure you’re on it too! The new post sounds interesting…once I’ve got Spansih under my belt, I’m going to be turning back to more obscure languages 🙂

  8. Paul Blakeman says:

    I now tell people in Paris that I study French and Economics, despite the fact that my Economics part was only for the first year of my studies. However, I do actually study French culture, philosophy, history, economics etc…but I get the same ‘what else?’ look! It is a shame as I actually read a lot and study ‘everything’ in one sense of the word.

  9. Pingback: Germany and England – Two nations united and divided by football | Of Words and Worlds

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