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.