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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  1. In Rutland, 89% of all 15 year olds took at least one language.

    A fact which carries about as much use as "89% of all residents of have six toes." I was the only person at my school who got an A* at GCSE in two languages, and I still can't speak French or German fluently.

    11 Jan 2005, 12:17

  2. Stuart Coles

    Totally agree. My secondary school made GCSE French mandatory – but then that's all they taught, no Spanish or German. And when I decided I wanted to be a chemist, the doors regarding learning a second language were pretty much closed. The timetables clashed at college with the subjects I needed to take, I took a French module as a first year in Cardiff (got a 2.1 too – most impressive!), but that was the only optional module I could do outside of the department. And the only reason I was allowed to do that was because I had 2 A levels in Maths and they didn't want me taking the Maths course…

    So in short – the teaching of languages in this country (England) is poor. I don't know enough about other English speaking countries to really comment.

    11 Jan 2005, 12:51

  3. Can't fully agree with you. I think it's important to have a good grasp on your native language before you can learn a second one (though the second one may help you with your first language). Also, in general, in Anglophone countries, you don't need to speak another language to do the whole life-cycle thing (study-job-family-etc). If you're graduated and looking for a job, only very specific ones will be delighted by second or more language skills – most will just be impressed, but you won't need them to get further within their companies – some just don't bother at all.

    In the Netherlands we learn to speak English from our 10th till our 17or18th (if we stay in school) and French and German from 12–17/18. Difference is that we are confronted with English in daily life – not in conversations or in the newspaper, but on telly, or listening to music, or general phrases (lots of words in business or politics are taken from English though they're not actual English). We share most of our border with Germany and most of our trade etc, so it seems useful to learn that language. French to me seems more historical, but similar to your story, it's a popular holiday destination. Also, as far as I know, it is an official world language used by the UN so I guess it has a high status.

    Other languages might be offered but it depends on the school you attend (languages vary from Turkish and Russian to Spanish and Italian). I chose to learn Spanish during my undergrad (in Utrecht, the Netherlands) as I had CATS to spare and indeed I thought it would be a good idea to train my brain's language centre – I rather wanted to learn a new language than to pick up French or German, ugh the mere thought of it… Anyway – to me Spanish still is a holiday language, though a very useful one as I realized when visiting my friend in Granada (who was on an Erasmus semester) and it was easier to understand her friends in Spanish than in English (for the record, my English is practically my first language as I speak Dutch about a month a year).

    Sorry my comment is gonna be as long as your entry now… What I want to say is to see the practicality of a second language, think of how often you would encounter it in daily life (when you got a job etc). Even in Canada, if you'd live in Toronto (already quite a ride away) or any further to the west, you'd not encounter people from Québec that often, so to be bilingual is a bit of a waste of your brain (it's good to speak French, but not necessarily on that level). If you'd live in southern California it's useful to speak Spanish next to English (as idunno half the population speaks it) but not necessary if you want to become a succesful lawyer/director/agent/whatever. And if you're from England and you end up in a high business environment, the only other language I could think of you'd have to use a lot is French or German, as I'm sure those are the countries you trade most with. Hope this added anything to your discussion!

    11 Jan 2005, 12:53

  4. David

    So what's you reason for learning other languages exactly?
    – So that we don't look lazy when we visit other countries? Nice idea, but personally I rarely visit the same place twice so unless I learn every language that's not a whole lot of use.
    – To help get a job? Depends on what job you want, it won't make any significant difference to me and again, how do you know you're learning the language which will prove useful?
    – To expand your intellectual and cultural horizons? Hmmmm…. possibly the only good reason for the majority of us to learn a language, ie we feel like we should for no reason other than it shows we aren't lazy. Very noble effort, but the same could be said about studying history, to learn about our past, quantum physics to understand what everything is made from (well, kind of) …
    We all have to make choices about what we study, and for me I just don't find languages interesting, useful, or necessary for my life. Yes if I had nothing else to do for the next 50 years then I might learn 10 different languages, but I already happen to have plenty to do, and wouldn't sacrifice something I currently do to study a language.
    Oh, and yes I can (kind of) speak French (got an A at GCSE - go me!), and that would be enough to communicate to someone French if I wa dying and absolutely desperate to get help of some sort. However, the last time I was in France (or anywhere French-speaking) I was about 5 years old I think, and so its not exactly a language that proved useful to me. I also learnt German for a couple of years, don't remember much of it and certainly having wasted 2 years of my life learning it I found it of absolutely no use to me when I visited Germany a few years ago because they spend so long teaching you grammar that you can say a few sentences perfectly, but completely lack the ability to communicate.
    Sorry, just my other complaint. The thing I still remember most from French is the verbs: J'ai, Tu 'a, Il 'a, Elle 'a, Nous avons, Vous avez, Ils ont, Elles ont. Now I know they're not spelled correctly, but thats all the verb forms of that for I/you/he/she/etc… Is that at all useful to me? Possibly, but you'd be far better to teach me the words for "bus", "town", "please", things like that – ok it might not sound good to a French person, but I bet they could work out what I was saying!

    David

    11 Jan 2005, 13:22

  5. Tienes razón. It's a lamentable fact that we are incredibly lazy when it comes to learning languages and a somewhat worrying one when you consider that I'm relatively unusual in being able to speak two foreign languages to a fairly high level. It's always struck me when I've been abroad how much better, by and large, our neighbours are at learning our language than we are at learning theirs. I've met French people whose English almost puts me to shame. Apart from anything else, if you speak, say, French and Spanish in addition to English, it gives you a far greater chance of being able to find a common language with anyone you meet. Spanish is a very rapidly growing language and is therefore useful on that score, and French, in addition to being spoken by over 100m people around the world, is still fairly commonly taught as another language after English. Also, anyone with any pretentions at all to intellect should have the capability and the ambition to speak another language well, as being resolutely monoglot not only limits your possibility of communication, it also limits your intellectual horizons. Anyway, that's enough proselytising from me; à bientôt.

    11 Jan 2005, 13:41

  6. Back in high school, we went on a weeklong History trip to Berlin. My friend Max proved himself to be the ultimate Englishman abroad when attempting to steal a curvaceous beer glass from the bar of the hotel we were staying in ("Phwoar, it's shaped like a woman!"). Picture to the scene:

    Max (gesticulating to bemused female bartender): "Yeah, can I TAKE THIS - THIS GLASS - UPSTAIRS? To my room, UPSTAIRS? YEAH?"

    Bemused female bartender (in broken English): "Yes, but you, uh, must bring it… back down after?"

    Max: "YEP. RIGHT."

    – and then, the lone concession to the poor Fraulein's mother tongue…

    "- Danke!"

    What a wazzock…

    11 Jan 2005, 15:46

  7. Housemate: Mike

    Bah- non-binary languages will be redundant soon ;) :P

    12 Jan 2005, 10:21

  8. I accept that we don't need to learn foreign languages in Anglophone countries, but I do not think it would hurt. The thing is timing, we don't learn from a young enough age, in general, to consider it just a fact of life, it's a new concept for most Brits at the age of 11 and so gets a somewhat negative reuptation as a result of this.

    I don't see why practicality should necessarily matter. I can think of loads of things I have learned in primary and seconadary school which I have never used- most of what I learned in geography, much of my sciences, religious studies etc etc. A language may be learned then never used or it could prove to be hugely useful, but we learn so much we don't need anyway, would it really hurt to learn a little more?

    One of David's points is that he never goes to a country often enough to justify learning a language. But would people be more likely yo go to a country if they could speak the language? Surely not being understood or understanding must be a factor in not going to a place. Maybe if people could speak the language then they would be more likely to go abroad repeatedly to a certain country? I can't really comment on this myself as I've not been abroad in a long time as I have no money (in my opinion Ireland does not count as abroad).

    As for the other comments here, Carter- there's always one and it's always your embarassing best friend. That is the rule. Housemate:Mike- Quiet you!

    12 Jan 2005, 12:38

  9. As far as practicality is concerned, I just realized it is useful for quite a few courses to know another language just so that there are more sources available to you (both German and French are quite important academic languages). I don't think it's necessarily school where children need to be confronted with other languages. All CTV shows (CBBC,CITV,whatever you call em) could have a few more items about people living elsewhere. And if kids are old enough to read it'd be useful to include subtitles instead of talking English over other languages. In that way one can connect the English they read to the language they hear.

    12 Jan 2005, 13:27

  10. In this post, I'm going to cover a bunch of different topics without linking between them very well. I'm also going to express views I may nor agree with, just to argue with you. Apologies.

    I find any attempt on my part to speak a foreign language is met with a smile – either bemusement at my incomprehensible speech or suprise I am even trying, I don't know which – and I am replied to in essentially perfect english.

    You say it's arrogant for us not to learn foreign languages, but wouldn't it also be arrogant for Europeans to almost exclusively learn European languages (French, Spanish, German) to the exclusion of so many others? You say Mandarin is spoken by a large number of people. Why don't we teach that in schools?

    The most obvious reason we don't teach Mandarin is that it's exceedingly hard to learn. But if we refuse to learn a language just because it's hard, does that not make us arrogant? You say Brits failing to learn european languages are arrogant, but couldn’t you also say that about Europeans failing to learn non-european languages?

    On a different but related topic, why do we only learn British history in schools? Would we not better understand foreign cultures if we had some understanding of their histories?

    Michael

    p.s. Wouldn’t ‘anglophonic’ make more sense in your title? After all, we usually use adjectives in that context (e.g. ‘The natural world’, ‘The new world’, etc), don’t we? And ‘anglophone’ is a noun…

    12 Jan 2005, 15:33

  11. Michael, a few points, 1.) European languages are more useful ones to learn, by and large, for people living in Europe than Oriental ones (although I don't see why we shouldn't learn those too). 2.) I don't know which school you went to, but I did a lot of non-British History at school (in fact, I don't think we did any British History at all for GCSE) – anyway, I agree with you, we should make an effort to learn about other people's cultures and Histories; it's only polite. 3.) It is 'anglophone,' just as the French speaking world is 'francophone' and, I suppose, the Spanish-speaking world 'hispanophone.'

    12 Jan 2005, 15:47

  12. Mandarin may be a hard language to learn, but so is English. In fact, English is one of the hardest European languages to learn as a second language. The grammatical structure is a hodge-podge of the original Germanic Anglo-Saxon language and Norman French, overlaid with a bit of Latin from the church. Also, the phoneticism of written English is rubbish. How many pronunciations of 'ough' are there in various words? Lots. I can speak French passably and know a fair bit of German, and they have much more sensible grammar and more phonetic spellings.

    14 Jan 2005, 23:08


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