All entries for Tuesday 11 January 2005

January 11, 2005

The Anglophone World's Biggest Problem

Oooo, pretentious title alert! This is cos I'm feeling bolshie and argumentitive…

But it says what I want to say. It's true to say that the Anglophone world, Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand have this problem moreso than Ireland and Canada. The problem? Hablas espanol? Parle vous Francais? Czy mówi pan po polsku? Languages. We can't speak them.

I know the first two of those phrases from memory. French is the main weapon of the British secondary school system but even after three years my knowledge of the language is pitiful, although one factor is that those three years were from the age of 11 until I was 14, so essentially I have not tried to engage in French for over six years. The Spanish I will return to but if you were to ask me "Hablas espanol [Do you speak Spanish]?" I would tentatively say "yes". Or "si" if I was feeling really confident. The last question from that paragraph is Polish for (natch) "Do you speak Polish?" No, but I have met a lot of Poles over the years and one (a friend of my brother) told me this once.

So am I a typical anglophone? No. I'm not in the slightest and this is a huge concern to me. Why aren't we communicating in one of the thousands of other languages around the world. More people speak Mandarin. More people speak English as a second language than as a first. The fastest growing language is Spanish.

Let's start with our own government's statistics:

1. It is currently estimated that languages are taught in about 1 in 5 primary schools. (Office for National Statistics)

Not good enough. I had no language education at primary school and this is exactly the time when we should be starting to teach languages, when it is easier for kids to learn and when they are more likely to respond, not yet the grumpy teenagers prone to the argument "all foreigners speak English anyway". 1 in 5 is a start but nothing more.

2. Figures from 2001/02 show that the number of GCSE entries for French and German decreased, while entries for Spanish increased. (Office for National Statistics)

Not surprising. French and German are traditional languages but they are less relevant than they used to be. We no longer conduct our foreign language affairs with just these two European partners. The rise of Spanish is also unsurprising, I learned both in school and Spanish is, frankly, easier for the native English speaker. German suffers from a tortuous grammar structure and the habit of creating words by gluing old ones together which whilst it creates intuitive things like Staubsauger- Vacuum cleaner, literally dust sucker- can also generate huge words like _ undesausbildungsfoerderungsgesetz_.

Maybe if we used Spanish as the introduction language, rather than French, it would be better. I've found in my experience that when I was doing the two in parallel the Spanish would help with the French on occasion, mainly in the grammar.

3. 74% of all 15 year olds taking GCSEs in 2002 studied at least one modern foreign language. 51% studied French, 21% studied German, and 8 % studied Spanish. (Office for National Statistics)

Except only one in three schools in this country force all their students to take a foreign language GCSE (BBC ). Since September this year it's not been the government's policy to force participation. Ok, you can argue that this will exclude the disruptive element who (I can vouch from experience) make it harder for the interested to learn, but even so some who have ability will slip through the net in a flurry of laziness and peer pressure.

4. In Rutland, 89% of all 15 year olds took at least one language – the highest proportion in the country. (Office for National Statistics)

Rutland is tiny. I included this stat to show that statistic can prove anything. Yeah, I'm cynical. So what?

5. Spain was the most popular destination for UK residents to visit in 2002, overtaking France for the first time in over 10 years. In 2002, UK residents made 12.6 million visits to Spain (up by 7%) and 11.7 million visits to France (down by 2%). (Office for National Statistics)

So what are we gonna do when we get there? Sit on the beach bitching about the Germans taking all the sunloungers? Talk to all the locals in English until one understands? Learn to say "dos cervezas, por favor" and leave it at that? All of the above probably. The British abroad gather into communities of Brits who speak English in their little enclaves and don't learn the local tongue. It's the sort of thing which breeds the inherent hypocrasy of the Daily Mail reading middle classes who lambast foreigners coming to England and not speaking perfect English but then roll over the Spain, Portugal, where ever expecting their loud voices and hand gestures to be enough.

The English speakers are too arrogant. Where there is more effort to teach a foreign language the results are mixed. The Irish and Welsh have to learn their native Celtic languages, which is laudable but ultimately pointless. No one speaks Welsh or Irish outside Wales and Ireland. My Irish born cousins never use the language (except to swear at me and my brother, they should know we learned all the Irish rude words years ago as a result of this and we know what they are saying). They complained about having to do it in their exams and wasting time studying them in school. None of them can speak any other language with any fluency. I know a similar story from Welsh friends. Ok, there are valid reasons for teaching the languages, it would be sad to see them die (and Welsh is a harder case to argue against as it is still a living language in many areas).

Canada… Canada's bilingual status does not necessarily translate into a nation where the English speakers are all fluent in French. Government statistics show that in a population of 28.5 million, just under 5 million identify themselves as bilingual. However, many of these are from Quebec so are, most likely, French speakers with fluent English. Even in a country where English is accompanied so often by another, live, language, the Anglophone arrogance appears to remain, though it is much less severe than in Britain or America.

So where does this leave us? Struggling frankly. We need to teach languages earlier and with more government backing. I feel passionately about this because of my own experiences.

I can read Spanish with a high level of fluency but my writing is littered with grammatical errors and I have next to no confidence with speaking. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I have no problem at all speaking (at great length) in English but I'm too afraid to attempt it in Spanish. Part of the reason I chose Warwick is that the history course here has a mandatory language option and I wanted to be able to keep myself able. As it is I'm stuck, not ignorant enough to just forget it all and not fluent enough to be happy with my ability. Would I be better if I'd started before the age of 12? Yes. It's a shame I and my contemporaries fell through the net but it shouldn't be the case for the current generation. But it will be, or worse…


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