Why English-speakers have an unpleasant arrogance – Jane Bradley

The actor Christopher Lee, seen here as Saruman in Lord of the Rings, could speak English, Italian, French, Spanish and German ' and also had some Swedish, Russian and Greek (Picture: Pierre Vinet/AP)
The actor Christopher Lee, seen here as Saruman in Lord of the Rings, could speak English, Italian, French, Spanish and German ' and also had some Swedish, Russian and Greek (Picture: Pierre Vinet/AP)
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English-speakers are notorious for failing to learn other languages because of the global dominance of their native tongue, but that should not be used as an excuse, writes Jane Bradley.

At school, we learned languages by rote.

“Wie komme Ich am Besten zum Bahnhof, bitte?” we would parrot – without the German teacher knowing or caring if we were aware which part of that sentence meant what.

The result was that most people could ask quite fluently how they got to the train station – which was required for the exam – but couldn’t for the life of them, if they found themselves lost in a German city, request directions instead to the post office, or supermarket.

The “Wie komme Ich” part of the sentence might just as well have meant “station” as the “Bahnhof” bit. No-one spoke German in any useful way. Yet everyone passed.

A report out this week found that foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most.

The study, carried out by the BBC, found that in Scotland, there has been a 19 per cent decline in language entries at National 4 and 5 level since 2014, while for five council education departments north of the border, no National 4 or 5 exams in German were recorded at all in the academic year 2017/18. It also claimed that that 41 per cent of Scottish schools have stopped offering a foreign language course to 16-year-olds. Under the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence, Scottish children learn one language through primatry school and have the chance to take a second in hgh school – yet do not have to take a national exam in the subject.

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English speakers are always known as being “terrible at languages”. We use this as an excuse, as if our brains are somehow hard wired in a different way to our peers across the world, making us incapable of learning to speak a foreign tongue.

Even outside of the UK, people generally support this myth.

“You don’t need to, everyone speaks English – it’s the international language,” my European friend Andreea argues. She cannot understand why I would want to spend time learning something that to her is not a pleasure, but a necessity. Living in Scotland for the past couple of years, she believes her English – which is completely fluent, albeit not absolutely idomatically word perfect – is terrible. She is working hard in her spare time to improve it, truly believing that she cannot speak it well enough to be considered competent. She also speaks a couple of other languages to a level which any Scot would be proud of – but she discounts as irrelevant as she is not at the same level as a native speaker.

I love languages. I like to claim that I speak three (French, German and Romanian) to an intermediate level – well enough to get by when I’m visiting the country, but not enough to carry on an in-depth conversation outside of basic small talk. Andreea would probably argue that I didn’t speak them at all – if she applied the same standards by which she judges her ability. Yet because I am British, she cuts me a bit of slack.

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While those particular languages have proved useful on occasion, that basic knowledge of speaking in a foreign tongue has been the most useful, sparking a desire to learn more. If I travel, I try to learn at least a basic “please”, “thank you” and “hello” in the local language – as an absolute minimum.

As native English speakers, there is no doubt that we have the luxury of not having to learn a foreign language. A lot of international business is conducted in English, while it is often the common language when an international group gets together in any circumstances, whether there are any native English speakers among them or not.

Yet as a native speaker of English, that makes me uncomfortable – I would almost rather speak any other language apart from English in that situation.

When I lived in Romania, there was a woman who ran a bread stall at the local market who used to greet me in French every time I passed.

“Bonjour, Madamoiselle,” she would call. “Buna ziua,” I would reply, in Romanian. Eventually, I asked her why she spoke French to me, when I could happily have a basic level conversation with her in her own language.

“Because you are foreign and the only foreign language I speak is French,” she explained (in French).

While slightly barmy, I have to admit that I liked her logic. The baker was trying her utmost to be welcoming to me. She felt that if we were both at a linguistic disadvantage – speaking a language that was not our native tongue – the interaction was more equal. She was right.

The dominance of English throughout the world gives us an unpleasant arrogance. We are rarely at the linguistic disadvantage in any international situation. Most English-speaking people probably have no idea what that feels like.

And this is why we need to make sure that our children learn a language. It is not because that particular language may end up being specifically useful to them in later life – or perhaps it will, who knows. Maybe everyone in my German class circa 1996 has found themselves saved by the fact they can find the train station in Berlin.

No, it is because we need to teach them that it is not acceptable that we do not try in other people’s languages – or that we should expect everyone to speak ours.