Foreign languages in Britain: between arrogance and nostalgia, says Libby Purves

Whilst many, like myself, fear that a post-Brexit Britain may sink deeper into cultural isolation, it is worth looking at how languages are faring on the sceptered isle. Libby Purves of the Times thinks that the landscape of foreign languages in the UK is as gloomy as the proverbial local weather. And it turns out that if Brexit does trigger cultural centripetism, then rock bottom has already been hit on foreign languages.

We’re guilty of island arrogance on languages
Libby Purves

The Times 22 August 2016

If it is true that Britain’s young were predominantly Remain voters, and are now furious at possibly “being robbed of the chance to live and work in 27 other countries”, there’s an odd irony. That fantasy of expat life in the sun, or chilling at a cool Berlin café table, may not involve talking to anyone local. For our rising generation is woefully unlikely to be comfortable conversing freely in anything but English. Once again, numbers taking language A levels have dropped; as a result, schools and colleges can afford fewer classes. It’s a vicious circle, and the number of modern language teachers continues to decline.
There have been various government efforts — the “English baccalaureate” will now require a modern language at GCSE, after the Blair government insouciantly made them optional after 14. Introducing them in primary schools was a good scheme — the earlier you start, the less embarrassed by the need to make weird sounds. Yet it has not stemmed the general decline. Only one child in ten carries on to A level, fewer still to university.
In any case, exams are not the whole answer. Our miserable teaching-to-the-test ethos rarely enthuses anyone. Formulaic, tense exam-language learning feels unrelated to the intellectual playfulness and adventure of discovering another culture. And even the plonking “Oral” exam is no preparation at all for understanding what a real foreigner replies when you trundle out your phrase-book sentences. Perhaps language learning should be taken right out of the depressing test system and treated more like routine exercise or games. In some systems — including parts of the US — even young children are taught one mainstream subject, such as geography, in a second language they are learning. This immersive approach takes the pressure off strict grammatical correctness and reminds them that the purpose of language is to communicate.

It is hard not to connect British linguistic reluctance with our endemic national weakness: island arrogance and a half-conscious memory of the days when we were an imperial force. It creates a pleasing but dangerous conviction that our islands are the natural centre of the world, and that we speak a uniquely rich and wonderful tongue which absorbed the best of all others to make something special (there’s a scintilla of truth in that, but no call to be smug). The result is a vague feeling that English is the natural default language, the “normal” one. So if the world wants to speak with us, it will do so in English. We gloss over the fact that the practical truth of this is due to the global dominance of America.

I caricature: but that attitude hangs around like a Channel fog. It’s in tourists assuming that the locals will parlano inglese or habla inglés because they need to sell us stuff, in gap-year interrailers relying trustfully on smartphone translation apps, and in businesspeople who attempt a few halting words of German (possibly in Oslo or Amsterdam, but what the hell) and then relax when their client replies in smoothly excellent English.

Yet language learning is as natural as breathing, and our brains have space for it, albeit often left vacant. Immigrant children nonchalantly switch between home and school tongues. Between the end of the Iron Curtain and Polish EU accession, I researched a novel among 18-year-olds in Wroclaw, all of whom had superb English plus at least one other language because they looked forward to the new freedom of travelling. While “independent user competence” in a second language here is 9 per cent, in Sweden and Norway it is nearer 90 per cent. Nor is polyglot skill only found in “educated” people with certificates: foreign correspondents tell of Afghan taxi drivers and refugee migrants who get by briskly not just in Dari and Pashto but Urdu, Punjabi, Turkish and, naturally, English.

We should all have extra languages, even without strict correctness, not just for practical and business reasons but because it expands thinking, feeling and sensitivity to subtle meaning. Everyone enjoys collecting “untranslatables”, foreign words we can’t neatly reproduce: mañana, fernweh, flâneur, schadenfreude. Appreciating the cultural depth behind German words such as angst and wanderlust, the cosiness of Scandinavian hygge and the crispness of French chic can of course be done via English adoption; but it must be better to meet them in context, wrapped in nuance and other nations’ stories.

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