There’s a famous joke that if you speak five languages, you’re a polyglot, if you speak two languages, you’re bilingual, and if you speak one language, you’re either English or American.
In February this year, Brexit leaning media celebrated what they dubbed an “early victory” for Britain in negotiations to leave the European Union. The victory in question was that negotiations would be conducted solely in English, with French-speaking parties having to front translation costs where necessary.
If the character of a nation is reflected in its people, then the widespread celebration of this moment encapsulates perfectly the suspicion with which English people view foreign languages.
The international dominance of English as a language has its roots in our colonial history. Everywhere we went, in addition to syphilis and slavery, we also brought our language. Today, of the 1.13 billion English speakers only a third, just under 380 million, speak English as their first language. The majority of English speakers have it as a second or third language, not their mother tongue. This is in contrast to Mandarin Chinese, which despite having a similar number of speakers overall, has relatively few second language speakers.
When I lived in Denmark, the opposite was the case. All my friends of course spoke spotless English, but many of them also spoke French and/or German. The fact that Danish is not widely spoken outside Denmark has fostered an outward looking worldview. Learning languages is not exceptional, it’s just what you do.
It is not difficult to see how this translates into a lazy attitude towards language learning in Brits. After all, if everyone already speaks your language, why should you take the time to learn theirs when you can already communicate perfectly well if you speak loudly, slowly, and patronisingly enough? This is not just a cultural stereotype either. In the UK, 38% of the population speak at least two languages, markedly fewer than the EU average of 52%.
After the wave of nationalism stemming from our imminent EU departure, English suspicion towards foreign languages has metastasised into full-blown hostility. In February 2020, the Manchester Evening News published an article claiming that one in four Brits feel uncomfortable hearing a foreign language spoken. People also describe how they feel nervous speaking in another language in public for fear of being verbally or even physically assaulted.
Sadly, this is not without justification. In 2018, a woman was physically attacked on the London Underground for speaking Spanish on the phone. A report in the Independent described the attacker as telling her “You need to speak in English, you’re in fucking England. You shouldn’t speak other languages”. In an apartment block a notice entitled “Happy Brexit Day” told residents that “We do not tolerate people speaking languages other than English in the flats. We are now our own country again and the Queens English is the spoken tongue here.” The irony that the notice was riddled with grammatical errors was presumably lost on its authors.
Sometimes there are stories in which such people are confronted. A story shared by BBC Newsbeat in 2016 described how a Muslim woman speaking to her son in a different language on a bus was asked to speak English because she was in the UK, only to be told by another passenger that they were in Wales, and the woman was speaking Welsh.
As rightly humiliating as this was for the man who made the request, it is still repulsive that it happened at all. It makes me angry and sad that someone would be so callous as to reject any language other than their mother tongue. Not only that, but to attack other people for possessing such a wonderful gift is sickening. Charlemagne said that “to speak another language is to possess a second soul”, which tells you all you need to know about such people.
It is not only open hostility that is frustrating, guilty apathy is also extremely irritating. Many people may not have the means or time to study, but for those who do but don’t, there is no excuse.
The lack of emphasis on languages in schools doesn’t help. When it comes to learning new languages, the younger you are the better. Students are generally not introduced to languages until high school, and most give them up at GCSE. It is certainly possible for someone older to pick up new languages, I was a late bloomer, but it is much more difficult to achieve a high level of proficiency. Introducing children to languages in primary school instead of secondary is an excellent idea, but in a hierarchy of subjects which places STEM and English at the top, languages are one of many that lose out.
Combine this with the celebration of wilful ignorance by the people responsible for negotiating our future, and I am not filled with optimism. It is not as though we are incapable either. England has produced some incredible linguists. Actor Christopher Lee, famous for playing Dracula, and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings, spoke eight languages. Fellow thespian Tom Hiddleston is also extremely gifted, with videos showing him speaking ten different languages, including Russian, Korean, and Mandarin. We can do it, so why do we choose not to?
Pick a language and begin learning as soon as you can. The initial stages are challenging. You will feel foolish, frustrated, and stupid. The trick is to persevere. People are very accommodating, and the rewards are worth it. In bocca al lupo!
Words by Kit Roberts
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