An Isolating Hubris

Is Britain becoming isolationist? What do the current successes for UKIP and the reopened debate about ‘Europe’ (a.k.a. our membership of the EU) mean for the state of language learning in our country?

As the rest of Europe moves towards us – whether for financial reasons or pragmatic ones – we seem to be withdrawing. Withdrawal from the EU would certainly end initiatives to move towards English being the de facto language of the EU. As Agnes Poirier points out:

“Once the lingua franca around the negotiating tables in Brussels and Strasbourg, French has given way to English. Though, if the UK were to leave the EU, there would be no reason for this to continue – English would be no more than the second language of three of the smaller EU states: Malta, Cyprus and Ireland.”

(Although this might increase to four, if the devolution vote goes Alex Salmond’s way.)

Linguistic abilities will be a darn site more important if we eschew our European Trading partners and then, as many predict will happen, US investors eschew business in the UK for favour of partners who can provide an entry to the Eurozone market. Britain will be relying on increased trade with non-English speaking nations and we’ll have some linguistic catching-up to do – fast!

Only last month the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said the UK risks losing credibility if more senior diplomats are not fluent in a range of languages. The MPs’ argument is that Linguistic abilities should be given more weight in Foreign and Commonwealth Office promotion (to different grades in the Diplomatic Service) criteria, including to top jobs, as this would “command respect” abroad.

It’s partly down to what Tom Sherrington, writing in the Guardian, calls our ‘complacent cultural-lingual apathy’ which, he claims, is a result of our almost exclusively Anglo-centric popular culture. Britain has fallen even further behind in modern language attainment since Tony Blair removed them from the ‘core’ curriculum back in 2004. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Britain’s elite Universities routinely conducting lessons in French or even bi-lingual teaching of the kind occurring in Spanish primary schools embedding itself in education practice here.

The few schools that offer this kind of bi-lingual education are the exception, rather than the norm. Perhaps it is because there is no natural ‘go-to’ language for English speakers when we think about which second language to learn. But isn’t this a lazy excuse? Nothing more than a collective national hubris?

Better to look at our own interests (Classic French Literature? Travelling in Latin America? Islamic poetry? A holiday home in Turkey?) and let them guide us towards the language we should choose.

Because the benefits of learning a new language are more than the practical ability to converse in another language – it offers a fascinating insight into a culture and the way people think. Learning a language gives you more than a tool for communicating more clearly and effectively – you gain great insight into the way the people you work or play with think and you will forge closer relationships with them as a result.

It also broadens your own understanding of the world by offering new perspectives on meaning and challenging you to think about how the constraints of one’s native language shape one’s thinking.

And, of course, when you know the language of the country you are visiting you stop being a tourist and become an adventurer.

Tom Sherrington suggests shifting people’s attitudes towards this kind of view of language learning will require:

“Schools and the Media, supported by politicians and businesses, [to] celebrate multilingualism to the extent that young people regarded monolingual life as a huge disadvantage and distinctly uncool, and would do all they could to avoid being left out.”

As a nation, we’ve got a long way to go. Although, hopefully, if you’re reading this page, you’re already receptive to the benefits of language learning. Let’s face it: as an adventurer you’re going to need to be – because, if the FCO aren’t speaking the language, you’d better make sure you are!

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