As an island nation geographically isolated from continental Europe, speaking foreign languages has never been Britain’s forte. With the majority of English speaking residents having no practical need to speak anything else, most UK citizens have never bothered to learn a foreign language. Apart from going on holiday a few weeks a year, where the hotel staff, waiters and tourist information guides inevitably all speak English anyway.
What incentive do you have to learn a new language that you will probably never use? Speaking foreign languages in Britain is essentially a bourgeois luxury – a cultural reference point for the urban middle classes, a demographic who want to order a bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir with their friends on holiday.
With the majority of the population immune to foreign languages, the number of students taking A-levels in England and Wales has fallen to a new low. Likewise Scotland is not faring any better with more than half of all foreign language assistants in state schools axed due to budget cuts.
In a provincial region such as Aberdeenshire, which is geographically isolated even in the context of Scotland, the majority of students don’t leave the North East after graduating. Bordering only England what practical incentive does an English speaking child in Scotland have to learn German or French? A truck driver from Luxembourg or Switzerland will be expected to speak at least three or four languages in order to communicate with their clients.
Linguistic exchanges are certainly not something a Scottish driver has to worry about when he or she travels through Cumbria to England. With the English language establishing itself as the global lingua franca due to the British Empire and the economic dominance of the United States, British citizens don’t really have much incentive to learn any language other than their own.
If France had won the Seven Years’ War and North America became a French colony then the English language might have been seriously challenged. Such is the historical power of this Anglo-American hegemony then unless British students are learning new languages purely for intellectual reasons the rewards are pretty slim. Understanding all the grammatical peculiarities, complexities and declensions is a tall order, like learning a code, and then you have to be confident enough to express yourself fluently.
The UK education secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed that every child aged five or over should be learning a foreign language at school. Speaking in the Guardian newspaper, Gove says “understanding a modern foreign language helps you understand English better” and “there is no one who is fluent in a foreign language who isn’t a masterful user of their own language”.
It’s hard to dispute this and teaching languages at nursery level, where children can learn easily is probably the best way ahead. What language should these children learn to speak though? English still remains the superpower of languages despite Mandarin’s numerical advantage. Will young children ever have the chance to converse in French, German or Spanish?
Languages were never meant to be the ornamental indulgences of the upper-middle classes. Speaking in a foreign tongue requires constant practice and attention. As native speakers of the global language, British citizens are almost given a carte blanche to be lazy. Unless you can practice a new language on a regular basis then these early linguistic abilities are incredibly fragile. Britain is arguably a victim of her geographical isolation and imperial past when it comes to learning new languages.
In the Tamil Nadu state of Southern India, most citizens can speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayam and Kanada by the age of twelve. With the majority of South Indians having to learn the state language of Hindi and English to communicate with the outside world, Britain’s monolingualism looks increasingly parochial.
If the UK education secretary’s proposals are implemented on a national scale then perhaps in 30 or 40 years time, the current generation of monoglots will be an endangered species. Somehow you don’t need to speak three languages to realise not even the most successful of human empires will last forever.