April 13, 2007

"Foreign" Languages

Grrr...tourists!The landlady of hotel “Hakuna Matata” near Cartagena (Costa del Sol) approached us. “Hola”, we said. “Buenas noches. Donde podemos poner nuestras cosas?” She stumbled a few words in Spanish. “We wanted to know where to put our stuff”, added one of us accommodatingly. “Ah, you speak English!” The lady’s face showed clear signs of relief. “And you made me try to speak Spanish!”

This post is not a pisstake, but more a general question out of genuine curiosity. Ah well, maybe slightly a pisstake too, then.

But why is it that the English-speaking world (explicitly including other English-speaking countries) are known for knowing no other language? In a more European context, the British – like the lady in my anecdote above – sort of stand out because of the fact that they hardly ever know, or intend to speak, other languages.

In no way I want to boast my own language skills, I mostly know a few useless phrases in a few languages, too little to be of any use. But I try, and I don’t assume anyone speaks my language, nor English.

Here’s a British peculiarity: “We’re just not very good with languages.” ??? I’m so sorry to hear that… is it a genetical condition?


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  1. It’s less the English-speaking world and more Britain. And what’s the problem? It’s our schools. We have one mandatory language taught (I’m not sure one language is even mandatory at GCSE anymore) and that’s it. Even when students take a language, a sizeable chunk of them can barely get a C in the core subjects, let alone a language, which often takes a backseat.

    If we want to improve the situation, languages really need to be adopted from a very early age, pretty much at the beginning of school. I don’t necessarily mean going into the complexities of grammar and whatnot, but I mean at least basic discussion going on so that the youth gains a feel for different languages at an early age.

    If you take other countries, they’re not only learning their native tongue, but also English. In some European countries you’ll not only need your native tongue, but also English and, possibly, another European tongue. So in Catalonia you’ll need Catalan, Spanish, perhaps some English. In Switzerland you’ll find yourself speaking a variety of languages, as you will do in Belgium. Italian is close enough to Spanish for mutual comprehension and it gives an incentive for both to pick up some of the other languages. As is the case in parts of Scandanavia (ie the Danish-Swedish-Norwegian triangle). In China there are many who are fluent both in their local, regional and national dialects of Chinese. Some who are fluent in one or two dialects but are able to communicate in others.

    Now contrast those situations to Britain… where everyone can speak English, except Scousers and Geordies and the Welsh (:P). Everyone speaks English, so it’s relatively easy to communicate outside of your home country (ie if you go to Jordan or China you’ll find most road signs are in English as well as Arabic/Chinese). As an average Brit student ou’re barely passing English and you don’t know enough English history let alone European/Global history to appreciate another culture and want to know a language.

    Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh.

    13 Apr 2007, 15:53

  2. We start learning foreign languages at 11 unless our parents plan otherwise. Everywhere else starts earlier. We’re crap at languages. I think I see the connection. We need to start sooner.

    13 Apr 2007, 19:15

  3. But that’s the weird thing Holly… I really really didn’t start learning any other language before I was 11. The only part you might bargain off this statement is that we don’t dub our tv and thus hear English in films and programmes.

    It must be something like a mixture of educational methods and attitude (though I admit I wasn’t always too keep on French and German either). In this respect I connect with Hamid’s view that other nationalities might feel a more pressing need to study languages. The Dutch are an encyclopedia example of that.

    13 Apr 2007, 19:42

  4. True, I do wonder which language anglophones should learn. I admit I went with Spanish because I found it easiest of the ones I tried to learn, possibly not the best reason ever but if it works…

    13 Apr 2007, 22:48

  5. I’d like to see everyone get a single language, aiming to be fairly fluent (or at least intermediate in that language) at the time of leaving school. I’d also like to see everyone get a basic overview of several different ‘core’ languages, covering various regions, eg Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and, perhaps, Farsi. It doesn’t have to be amazingly in-depth. It’s really not that difficult to learn the basic script of a language (well alphabetical languages I should say) and these cultural and linguistic insights should be encouraged at an early age.

    14 Apr 2007, 11:48

  6. I reckon both Holly and Hamid are right here. I never really mastered more languages than English when I left school, despite some education in German, French, Spanish and Norwegian. But still, I studied them for a while, and when you have that basis, you may always come back to them to fortify secondary school knowledge. As I am doing now, working on my Spanish.

    Whatever your reason may be (for example, Spanish being the easiest of languages to learn), if it motivates you to go ahead with it, why not? Every additional language is worth knowing. On a sidenote, I usually helps to have some other-language speaking friends because being able to communicate better with them then becomes a real objective. I’ve recently gotten to know quite a few Germans, for example, and I find the little knowledge I have of German comes out really handy.

    It’s first and foremost about getting kids interested, I reckon.

    14 Apr 2007, 17:43

  7. in the french system, or at least at my school you had to take up a langauge at eleven, either english or german, then at thirteen you had to choose a second language: spanish, english or german. there was also the option of taking latin or greek alongside this. as far as i remember both those languages remained compulsory till the end of school, which explains why the french would know enough of those two languages to be able to get by in a different country. the system in france means that you need to get a high enough average to get into the next year, which is an incentive too to get good grades in the language classes. in england on the other hand, you pass, regardless of your grades into the next year…

    14 Apr 2007, 22:03

  8. Well there’s two reasons to learn languages:
    a) Communcation and,
    b) The cultural enrichment from learning about how languages work, how languages differ etc.

    The first is purely practical. The second has very narrow practical applications but that’s no reason for it not to be studied: it’s why we study history, literature and tons of other subjects. But the second aim can only be achieved by a genuine study of the language from an at least somewhat academic perspective – something that is beyond most primary school kids. So the motivation of teaching languages before age 11 has to fall clearly into the first catagory: practical application. And that’s when you’re faced with with the inevitable truth: most people that the majority of people will ever have to deal with speak English anyway.

    So although we could start teaching it earlier, the question ends up being ‘why bother?’. And this extends somewhat to post-11 language schooling too. While English students might enjoy studying French or German, unless they really want to do something very specific, there’s not the drive. They’re not faced with the concept that they have to learn French or vast amounts of employment options would be closed off to them. And it’s not just expected by society that they’re at least have a grounding in another language.

    I guess my point is, we’re worse at languages as it isn’t as important to us because ‘well everyone speaks english’. Not a great state of affairs but it is the way it is, and frankly I think it behooves the education system to take advantage of this and focus more on making sure our kids can all read, write and do sums.

    15 Apr 2007, 00:55

  9. Lou

    it saddens me that people like you exist Dean. you are part of that array of characters who can’t see that different langauges should be taught, not from a practical stance (what is worth? how useful?) but to make us better human beings, to stop the world from becoming one uniformed globalization devoid of character, accent and identity. by not learning english and assuming everyone speaks it, you are threatening minority languages worldwide by forcing all of these other countries to prioritize learning english over other ones. you are in other words, a cunt.

    15 Apr 2007, 02:09

  10. Andy

    I think a majort aspect of the English not speaking other languages is due to our non-exposure to them; the non-speaking world get to enjoy (endure?) endless streams of TV and movie output from America exposing them to spoken American; notice how many continetal English speakers have slight American accents?

    Also the intermingaling between countries around border regions and the more similar nature of continental languages can’t fail to aid in their learning and desire/need to learn.

    I’m no language expert but from my limited knowledge of grammer, English is very different from many continental languages in its structure, in many ways simpler (no gender words, simpler regular verb conjucation etc) and therefore easier to learn but harder to go from English to another language. It’s easier to forget to have to gender words than to have to remember to!

    English (or maybe the people? )is also a language that seems to tolerate ‘basterdisation’ much more than other languages. We’re not prissy about correct grammer or the sanctity of our language unlike say the French who dislike evolution in their language, making it much more difficult to learn and to practice without causing offence.

    On the few occasions I’ve attempted the local lingo I’ve more often than not been met with an individual speaking English back to me (far better than my attempt at their language) with a desire to practice their English.

    Having said all that there’s still a problem with the way we teach language in the UK, we need to start earlier and put more emphasis over the spoken word than grammer; my limited ability to read and write French has always been far suppior than my spoken French, surely the wrong way round? Languages are important and as a country we do need to do more to learn and to teach other languages – probably beging to include other non-European regions languages.

    As the saying goes if you want to buy from them you just need to speak English, but if you want to sell them you need to speak their language

    15 Apr 2007, 12:49

  11. Moritz

    As a German know beeing for a while in the UK I have to agree with Andy. In Germany, and I suppose in most other countries as well, you can’t escape the English language. It’s not just TV; it’s music, many technical terms that don’t have a widespread German counterpart, ads and much more.

    Somebody not speaking English is lost in many European countries, perhaps with the notable exception of France, where the use of non-French words is regulated.
    So Dean’s reason No. 1 to learn a language is much more present in non-English speaking countries, and having a good reason to learn the language makes it easy to be proud of the second reason as well ;-)

    15 Apr 2007, 14:26

  12. James

    Simple answer: English is the world language, so native speakers have far, far less incentive to learn any other language. Look at the stats for languages on the web: it is English all the way (about 85% last I heard).

    15 Apr 2007, 16:09

  13. I think Dean and James are right in their “hard truth” that English is (on a global level) the uncontested first language. However, using that as a milking cow as Dean suggests takes away a great deal of goodwill from nationals of other-speaking countries. If I’m not mistaken I’m often observing relative surprise from people when they find a Brit speaks another language. On the other hand Brits coldly assuming Spanish people speak their language many times causes resentment.

    Having at least a basic level of another language means being able to interact much more naturally with others, and many times it even simply means that you can communicate with a whole lot more people.

    That point aside, I think Brits often underestimate the importance of “regional languages”, which is a missed chance. Germany is still the country with most citizens in Europe, and there are still many Germans who don’t speak English at an elaborate conversational level. In further Eastern Europe, Russian still rules the waves. Spanish needs, I guess, no further explication. And think of Chinese, Arabic, etc. I really believe only knowing English will not do in a great part of these language spheres.

    15 Apr 2007, 18:08

  14. Lou, thanks. You’re the perfect example of my point. Had the focus of your education been more strongly focused on learning English properly you might have been able to read and comprehend what I wrote properly instead of simply having a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of words I said. Secondly, you would have been taught how to use capitals letters at the start of sentances. As I previously stated, there are great reasons for learning other languages, but our focus should be on ensuring people are literate in English, otherwise we end up with people like you: you’re what’s known as a ‘failure of the education system’, a person with no grasp of basic reading comprehension, no idea how to use the simplest of punctuation, and a vocabulary so limited you can only engage in debate through the use of offensive pejoratives.

    Let me try and help.

    You said “you are part of that array of characters who can’t see that different langauges should be taught, not from a practical stance (what is worth? how useful?) but to make us better human beings, to stop the world from becoming one uniformed globalization devoid of character, accent and identity”, while I said “Well there’s two reasons to learn languages: a) Communcation and, b) The cultural enrichment from learning about how languages work, how languages differ etc.”

    In my statement, the part labelled b) is what you said, but expressed in a significantly more eloquent manner.

    15 Apr 2007, 18:54

  15. Anon

    Who cares about other languages? The rest of the world are going to have to speak English anyway to stay in business so might as well teach them a bit whilst we are there.
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/09/asia/englede.php

    15 Apr 2007, 19:11

  16. lou

    how typical of you to pick up on silly things such as orthographe, punctuation and capitalization. are you not familiar with your own, english-speaking e.e cummings? no? well, never mind.
    you obviosuly weren’t able to look beyond the ‘naughty’ words in my post to see my point, and i am saddened that you find expletives such a blindfold. as to ‘me’ (the ‘failure of the education system’), i speak four languages fluently, so what if my english isn’t up to ‘scratch’? it’s certainly better than your own knowledge of french, italian and german, and i suspect my knowledge of your english literature is more in depth than yours too. you just have no clue.

    16 Apr 2007, 00:17

  17. Andy

    Lou, Dean grow up!

    16 Apr 2007, 02:30

  18. Andy is right. Any comments played on the person will be removed from here on.

    Please – if you can´t discuss in a normal way, then don´t discuss at all.

    16 Apr 2007, 14:04

  19. Sorry, wouldn’t normally do that but when someone makes offensive remarks about me in a public forum while I’m attempting to engage in constructive debate, I will belittle them in response.

    16 Apr 2007, 15:39

  20. The major problem is that language-learning isn’t encouraged in this country. The school I went to was a specialist language-college but to pursue more than one language to GCSE level you still had to go out of your way. I’m good at languages and enjoy learning them, so I can speak French and Spanish fairly well and have some basic Latin, but the problem is that pursuing such a range of languages is very much the exception rather than the rule.

    16 Apr 2007, 23:51

  21. Katy

    Please dont take these comments the wrong way and try and see that I’m attempting to add something constructive to the argument. I learnt French all the way from nursery (Age 2 1/2) through to GCSE, and Latin from 10 till GCSE. I was never very good at either of them, they didn’t come naturally to me like they did other people in my class or members of my family, but I managed to get good marks in both. Despite this, I can’t remember much of either, because studying something for a GCSE is not the same as having any real skill at it. I didn’t enjoy them because I found other subjects easier. This has nothing to do with me not wanting to learn about those cultures – I find history fascinating, and certainly as much, if not more, histories of countries other than my own. I love watching foreign movies more than Hollywood ones. I love to travel. Being a student of English, I am also very keen to understand the way in which other languages differ from my own- I genuinely think it is really important and fascinating to learn about for example the relationships between gendered nouns and gender politics in a country, and the derivations of words in many different languages, their shared etymologies etc etc. But I’m not good at speaking languages. I just don’t have the confidence in my abilities to feel its worth it – when I’m speaking to someone in a different country who knows english I get embarassed when they see I’m struggling. This is not due to lack of trying. I went to special classes and had private tutoring up to GCSE, and still got a bad mark on the oral section of the exams because its just not something I’m good at.

    I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but maybe as Andy suggests English as a Language is easier to learn, perhaps because it is simpler, and maybe because of the constant output of cultural produce in English like movies, tv and pop music, not forgetting the internet, which means people from other countries find English easier to pick up. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, but perhaps just the way it is.

    The test of whether English people are lazy – and maybe you’ll contest this point – has to be how many English people know a foreign language in comparison to how many foreign people know a foreign language other than English. And before you shoot me straight down on this, I’m not advocating globalization of English or a one-language-world or anything like that, it’s just that English people don’t have the option of taking English as a second language to disprove you, and maybe the closest thing to disproving this linguistic lethargy you are proposing is to compare that stat, and take into account how often English people study other cultures in English, which should demonstrate their willingness to understand and connect with people from different geographical locations and cultural origins, despite not having natural language learning ability.

    17 Apr 2007, 22:35

  22. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but maybe as Andy suggests English as a Language is easier to learn, perhaps because it is simpler, and maybe because of the constant output of cultural produce in English like movies, tv and pop music, not forgetting the internet, which means people from other countries find English easier to pick up.

    Actually, as I understand it, English is not an easy language to learn because it’s so irregular. All languages have irregularities but English has more than most as well as an intimidatingly wide vocabulary.

    17 Apr 2007, 22:51

  23. Luke… I can understand nearly anyone whose English is remotely intelligble, irrespective of accent. I don’t think Arabs, Chinese etc. have the same ease understanding people with terrible accents.

    That’s why English can be considered easier. OK, you might have to learn the difference between pear and pair or that read is pronounced differently depending on whether it’s the past or the present. But try the grammar of Russian or Arabic (you want to hear irregular? How about Singular, Dual and Plural? Or perhaps plural only counting up to the tenth number and then singular being used for the plural?), or the pronunciation of Mandarin or Cantonese and you’ll find English to be far, far easier.

    18 Apr 2007, 00:30

  24. Katy – I take your point and read your personal experience with interest. I can see how fear of public speaking or shame of making mistakes in another language can block direct and easy communication. I experienced it myself during my first period at Warwick as I wanted to express everything I said in a flawless English. It is, however, even probable that second-language speakers of English feel less embarassed to make mistakes than English-speakers in another language, although that is of course unprovable and different from person to person.

    However, isn´t that exactly the crux of the discussion? Learning a language means making mistakes and accepting the fact. If that will block you from speaking, it´s the worst for yourself as you will make no progress in a new language. Also, I didn´t understand your last phrase very well, “despite not having natural language learning ability”. That´s exactly the type of self-victimising attitude that I find so typically British. My point has nothing at all to do with talent.

    18 Apr 2007, 11:30

  25. Richard Cunningham

    The main problem I expect for most native English speakers is choosing which language to learn. For non-English speakers, English would seem to be the obvious one to go for since it is so widely spoken often as second language. For native English speakers I think you should ask yourself why you want to learn another language. If it is travel to other countries it is a good idea to look at the languages spoken where you want to go. For instance if you learn Spanish you can travel most of Latin America on just this one language. Arabic and French are also spoken by large numbers of countries. These links are interesting: countries by languages and Languages spoken by More Than 10 Million People

    18 Apr 2007, 17:54

  26. Katy

    I think another problem is, as Richard just touched upon, there simply is more incentive for people of foreign countries to speak English. This may not be right but it’s a fact. A person from Germany who decides to learn English will be understood not only in England, USA and Australia but also in France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Asia etc. A person from England who decides to learn German will only be understood in Germany. You could go to Italy for example and be offended because you see English tourists in pubs who make no effort to speak that language, but for all you know those tourists might be proficient in French, Spanish or German, which is quite possible considering the amount of people who take a language to A-level. At the same time, you might be impressed to go to any European country and meet a foerigner who speaks English. You might compare those two people and conclude the Englishman is the lazy one but in actual fact they have potentially made the same effort.

    You actually kind of hinted at to what I think is the answer in your initial question, and which Richard addressed:

    “But why is it that the English-speaking world (explicitly including other English-speaking countries) are known for knowing no other language?”

    You say, “no other language”— singular. The reason being a lot of English people are proficient at at least one other language, which means when they travel abroad they rely heavily on phrase-books or on english, because they do not limit themselves to travel to countries where they are proficient. We are well known for knowing no other language because there’s not a common second language we share as a nation, which might give the overall impression “We’re just not very good with languages.”

    18 Apr 2007, 18:22

  27. Richard Cunningham

    I’d also say we in U.K. have a harder choice of second language than in the U.S.. If you consider that most people go on holiday not to far away from their home country because of cost and time, then most U.K citizens go to Europe and U.S. citizens go to somewhere in the Americas. The difference is that many different languages are spoken in Europe where as the Americas mostly speak English or Spanish. Also a lot of people who live in the U.S. have Spanish as their first language so there is more chance to practice in everyday life.

    18 Apr 2007, 19:21

  28. Andy

    Also in the U.S. spanish is spoken by lots of the population, in some parts I believe its more widespread than English

    18 Apr 2007, 20:39

  29. Indeed… this is only anecdotal, but I heard recently that if the Spanish population in the US continues to grow as it has done recently they’ll end up with more people with Spanish as their first language than English.

    18 Apr 2007, 20:58

  30. Spanish?
    dumbo.

    19 Apr 2007, 20:39

  31. Lis Wilson

    I speak several European languages, and I know I’m not alone. I don’t think it’s fair to make blanket comments about the British – where is your evidence? There are thousands of ex-pats overseas who speak foreign languages, and a fair few linguists in this country. The problem is getting the opportunity to practise, when most foreigners coming to England want to lean English for work purposes, and also, I would say, the lack of broad-ranging cultural programmes on tv.

    One niggle I have about Biritsh television is the dearth of foreign films. In the 1970s you could regularly see a lot of French cinema over here. Why did broadcasters get so narrow-minded? British television seems very stagnant to me, without even an opportunity for new video shorts to get on air. What was Channel 4 created for except to encourage new material?

    it would be a good start if the South Bank Show would at least try to interview a foreign writer or director – e.g. Paul Coelho. Or how about Vaclav Havel? A writer who became a politician, and could speak about the big changes in Europe. I hope Michael Palin’s new series will bring in some new ideas.

    e

    20 Apr 2007, 16:52

  32. Adam

    I can’t help but feel if I wasted my time with other languages I wouldn’t have any room for useful stuff, like Maths, English and Science :-)

    20 Apr 2007, 17:25

  33. Adam

    “Lou, thanks. You’re the perfect example of my point. Had the focus of your education been more strongly focused on learning English properly you might have been able to read and comprehend what I wrote properly instead of simply having a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of words I said. Secondly, you would have been taught how to use capitals letters at the start of sentances. As I previously stated, there are great reasons for learning other languages, but our focus should be on ensuring people are literate in English, otherwise we end up with people like you: you’re what’s known as a ‘failure of the education system’, a person with no grasp of basic reading comprehension, no idea how to use the simplest of punctuation, and a vocabulary so limited you can only engage in debate through the use of offensive pejoratives.”

    HAHAHAHAHA

    I love it when the lonely school gimp has his moment of fame.

    Well done Dean :-)

    20 Apr 2007, 17:28

  34. Gail

    I find certain people in this discussion rather rude. What “Useful stuff” is, after all, is a matter of opinion, n’est pas?

    21 Apr 2007, 02:36

  35. Lis Wilson

    I speak several European languages, and I know I’m not alone.

    People who make in excess of 1,000,000 pounds a year are also not alone… It does not make them the majority.

    21 Apr 2007, 09:44

  36. Katy

    I don’t think theres any country in the world where people who speak “several European languages” or several other foreign languages for that matter are in the majority. In each country you will find some people more inclined to learn foreign languages like Lis, and more that would be inclined if there was greater exposure of the kind Lis suggested.

    21 Apr 2007, 11:54

  37. It’s clear that you’re not quite familiar with Switzerland, Belgium, Scandanavia etc. where people are often fluent in several European languages.

    21 Apr 2007, 14:23

  38. Max Hammond

    It’s clear that you’re not quite familiar with Switzerland, Belgium, Scandanavia etc. where people are often fluent in several European languages.

    Hamid, it’s quite clear that you’re not familiar with those countries, either.

    • Belgium is quite strongly divided into French-speaking and Flemmish-speaking areas, a minority of the French-speakers speak any Flemmish (I don’t know about the other way round).
    • In Scandinavia, the languages are mutually-intelligible to some extent; that’s not the same as speaking several languages. Finland is an exception here, where Swedish and Finnish are both widely used; although most individuals will categorise themselves as Swedish-speaking or Finnish-speaking there is a high degree of mutual bilingualism.
    • Switzerland is divided into German, Italian, French and Romansch areas. These areas don’t necessarily line up with the Cantons, so some Cantons are officially bi- or tri-lingual. Romansch is a minority language, so most speak another language too. Most Italian-Swiss are proficient in German, but relatively few of the French Swiss speak any German.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t fluent multi-linguals in all these places, for there certainly are. However, it’s nothing like the majority. In all of these countries, a large number of younger people, and those in the larger cities, speak good english (moreso in Scandinavia and Switzerland than in Belgium).

    I learn foreign languages because:
    1. I find the process of learning interesting and challenging
    2. It opens up opportunities to work abroad
    3. It increases my cultural understanding
    4. Using a new language gives me a new perspective on the other languages – the words or idioms which just don’t translate

    21 Apr 2007, 16:13

  39. I’m not saying that there aren’t fluent multi-linguals in all these places, for there certainly are. However, it’s nothing like the majority.

    I’m quite sure I never argued it was a majority. I’m quite sure it’s much more frequent to find members of those countries being at least bilingual, if not a polyglot, than it is to find People in Britain who are so. Especially if we narrow it down to people who are not first or second generation immigrants/tourists.

    Hamid, it’s quite clear that you’re not familiar with those countries

    Oh really? I’m not quite sure how you arrived at that opinion, given what you write afterwards. I am guessing that nationals in the listed nations are far more likely to be polyglots than British nationals. And that is despite the large number of naturalised immigrants in the UK.

    Katy said “In each country you will find some people more inclined to learn foreign languages like Lis”. Yes, that’s true. You do have linguaphiles. You also have a population that is generally well-versed in English and other languages from a young age. No, it doesn’t mean everyone is fluent in such languages. But I’m willing to wager that the proportion of polyglots in the listed nations is higher than that in the UK.

    22 Apr 2007, 00:48

  40. Max Hammond

    Hamid,

    I’m quite sure I never argued it was a majority.

    As you replied to:

    I don’t think theres any country in the world where people who speak “several European languages” or several other foreign languages for that matter are in the majority.

    Your comment was phrased as a contradiction to that, especially in the context of your earlier comment:

    People who make in excess of 1,000,000 pounds a year are also not alone… It does not make them the majority.

    It certainly seemed like an argument that polylinguals were a majority.

    I am guessing that nationals in the listed nations are far more likely to be polyglots than British nationals.

    I can talk from my experience of Belgium and Scandinavia, but I’ve not been to Switzerland myself. If you count English, there is a far higher level of polylingualism, but this is true for most of the world – why did you select the countries you did? They may have several languages, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a higher level of polylingualism. I’d expect more polylingualism in smaller countries – Luxembourg, Monaco, etc.

    I’m actually surprised by how little bilingualism there typically is at country borders; I expected there to be a strong mixing but I’ve never seen it. There are sometimes weird dialects which mix both languages without being really comprehensible in either :-) (eg Saarländish, Elsässerdeutsch, Skånska, Värmlandska)

    22 Apr 2007, 13:02

  41. Gail

    I went to a school which thought it was a good idea to teach a language that was practically dead and I disliked it so much (mainly because it seemed so irrelevant) that when I was given the opportunity to learn French I was totally against the idea of learning foreign languages. I have changed my mind radically since my school days though and think it’s great to be multi lingual (I wish I was).

    Dum spiro, spero

    22 Apr 2007, 18:42

  42. Max Hammond

    Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur

    22 Apr 2007, 19:20

  43. Yes Max, and that’s why it’s handy to know it. ;-)

    22 Apr 2007, 20:43

  44. Gail

    I disagree, I think words said in English sound more profound.

    To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and sing it to them when they have forgotten.

    23 Apr 2007, 07:36

  45. Chris

    Here is one for Lou, Ref. 9

    I think that the tone is a little bit too bitter / insulting and more on the winge side of the spectrum than I am comfortable with. So I had to comment.

    Firstly, I too speak more than one European language, two, well enough pass for a local, and one well enough to get by.

    Secondly, I am not English / British, or American. So hopefully I can be considered independent of any anglo-saxon bias.

    Thirdly, and lastly with regards to the introduction, I have lived and worked in a fair few countries (having spent more time abroad than at home) and I think I can claim a fairly balanced point of view.

    My opinions with regards to your rather jaundiced views regarding growing “uniformity” and how depressing it is to have people like Dean around is the following:

    1) A certain degree of practicality, a fairly honest perception of reality and “common sense” are attributes that I very much respect the British for (although they appear to be becoming increasingly rare).

    2) Please remember that all of the rich varieties of romance tongues (Italian, French, Spanish, etc.) find their source in just one language, Latin. The concept that the European continent must now freeze so as to protect cultural riches amassed up to this point is a little silly to say the least. In fact probably more than a little insulting to the living and evolving complexities of culture and language.

    3) While I do agree that learning a language is the first step both to appreciate and preserve the literary, cultural, etc. wealth of any given language, and that languages are beautiful things in themselves, it is also important to be practical. The Romans were probably not very good at languages either.

    So please leave the Dean’s of the world alone, they have their priorities, you have yours and I have mine. Live and let live.

    What does depress me is that opinions such as yours have been in the driver seat of continental Europe, doing their best to place restrictions on our development in a misguided attempt to protect a cultural and economic status-quo that can never really survive.

    23 Apr 2007, 12:18

  46. Sue

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what someone said about expecting there to be more people speaking the language of other countries at borders but people may feel even more strongly about upholding the tradition of their own language at such places. This may be why you don’t find many people speaking Welsh in Bristol although as my husband pointed out there is a river between Wales and Bristol so this may make a difference.

    25 Apr 2007, 06:40

  47. Asad Dhunna

    Quite an interesting debate here, to which I’d quite like to add some thoughts.

    First of all, British children are by no means encouraged to explore languages, and the depth that they can provide, interlectually at least. The current GCSE language reforms consist of erradicating grammar and ensuring that students are able to “get by” on a fairly basic standard. By doing this, I don’t think the value and worth of a foreign language is put across to children. My old German A level teacher is retiring this year because she’s fed up of these changes, which will mean that she won’t enjoy what she teaches any more. For me, learning French and German at A level was about developing my knowledge about two very different countries, whilst also becoming engulfed by another language, with it’s own idioms and irregularities. Were I just forced upon with endless role plays, which would never actually occur in exactly the same situation if I were to go to either Germany or France. I think it’s much more beneficial to explore a language and get to grips with just how big a concept it was.

    Second, more a side point here, but I have younger relatives (around the age of 7 and 8) in Switzerland and they have been taught both English and French at a fairly similar level and I was astounded when I visited them to find that they were far more confident and able to speak French at such a young age. Their grasp of the language was on par with, if not better than, mine, even though I achieved an A level in it.

    In my opinion, by labelling a language “unuseful”, people are dissuaded to explore the fascinating intellectual elements of it.

    25 Apr 2007, 22:40


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