Monday, 15 August 2016

Why the Welsh Language absolutely should not die.

Earlier this month, BBC Radio Live Five sent a tweet asking someone to speak on air about 'why the Welsh Language should die', before apologizing.  As it turned out, No one was found who was willing to profess such an opinion.  Such comments, did, and rightly so, trigger a hostile reaction from both the Welsh Language Commisioner and Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru.  Leanne's response, which I thought was excellent, argued that the Welsh Language belonged to everyone in Wales, and an attack on the language was an attack on Welsh people in general.  I certainly agree and believe that now is an appropriate time to argue why I believe that the Welsh Language is so important.
       I, being a language learner, did French for A Level and after my A Levels, I spent a little over a month of that Summer in Brittany, another Celtic Country, in order to practice my French and see if I could hear any Breton, an endangered language very similar to Welsh.  But it was after I arrived there that I realized how important Welsh is.  One day, my host family and I bumped into a non-French woman who had moved to Brittany and learnt French.  I spoke to this lady, and it turned out she was Irish.  Nevertheless, my host family kept referring to her as l'anglaise - 'The English Woman.'  I pointed out to them that no, she was not English, that instead she was from the Republic of Ireland which was not only not part of England, that it was not even part of the UK and hadn't been for nearly a Hundred Years.  However to my Host Family, it didn't matter, to them the Irish were English.  This was an attitude or belief that cropped up more than once while in France, and I had also encountered it on the Continent before.  
       The same belief/attitude does not appear to exist towards the Baltic States, all three of which gained independence from the Soviet Union only 25 years ago, or towards the other Post-Soviet states by that matter.  So many countries have gained independence from larger neighbors since the Ireland gained independence in 1922, and yet they are not dealt the same injustice of being thought of as the same as their former conquerors.  Why is this? Once word: Language.  In spite of everything about Ireland that is different to England, its culture, its geography, its history, its republican system of government, the be all and end all with regards to whether or not many people deny whether you exist as a nation appears to be whether or not you're ancestors adopted the language of their conquerors.  
       Wales, like Ireland, has a lot that is different from England; its geography, its culture, its architecture, its success at Rugby and its institutions such as the Eisteddfod.  But unlike Ireland, Wales is still part of the United Kingdom and is much more linked to, and integrated with, England than Ireland is; not only in terms of geography but also economically, demographically and with regards to its transport infrastructure.  Welsh people are therefore even more likely to be referred to as English by people from outside the British Isles.  It therefore seems that in the eyes of the much of the west of the world,  whether or not Wales is a nation in its own right or merely a western province of England depends on the survival of the Welsh Language.  And for those who say that Welsh no longer has a right to exist because of Globalisation, is anyone seriously saying that because of globalization, the Estonians should stop speaking Estonian and instead adopt Russian?   

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Are we Brits really so bad at Foreign Languages?

In my first Blog, I did rather criticize my own Country for the attitude of much of our Press towards the Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence, along with the British Government of the day's conduct in Ireland at the time.  Perhaps now I should redeem myself in the eyes of my Country and dispel an accusation made against us all the time, and not least by ourselves, that we as a nation are bad at learning foreign languages.  I myself am a Second Language speaker of French who studied it for A Level, while I am also, as mentioned in my last blog, having a shot at Welsh right now while I have tried but temporarily given up on German.

The notion that we, Brits, are worse at learning Foreign Languages than other Europeans implies that we as a nation do try, but don't succeed, while other Europeans also try but do actually succeed.  The foreign languages most traditionally taught in Britain are French followed by German, while Spanish is somewhat of a newcomer.  In order to prove that we are 'bad' at those Foreign Languages, remembering that being good or bad is always relative, we would have to prove that other Europeans are better at those Foreign Languages than we are.  Do Germans speak better French than we do?  Are Sicilians more proficient than us in German?

There can be no doubt, that the study of Foreign Languages in Britain is in the decline. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of entries for A Levels in Foreign Languages fell by 31%.  During that period, the number of such entries for French fell by 57% and for German, 59%.  Spanish did show an impressive increase of 59% however.  Overall the issue is not that we are trying but not succeeding, but that fewer of us are trying in the first place.  Is this a uniquely British Problem? No. In the 1970s, 15% of Germans could hold a conversation in French.  Now, less than 5% can.  The study of German in France is likewise less than what it was 40 years ago, while even in Flanders, the Flemish speaking half of Belgium, French Language proficiency is in the decline despite the fact that native speakers of Dutch and Flemish have a reputation of being the best linguists in Europe.  Even stranger, given that we are living in an age of Globalization and greater inter-connectivity.

 The notion that we are under-performing in French and German compared to other non-French and Non-German speaking Countries, respectively, is therefore plain wrong.  That is not the issue here.  The reason why fewer of us are learning French and German, and the reason why other European are also learning those languages less and less is because what happens to our Mother Tongue, English, has become the undisputed First Foreign Language in every non-English speaking Country in Europe.  And even that is an understatement; for our European neighbors, the situation for them is not so much that everyone has to learn a Foreign Language and English happens to be the most popular; English is in a different category from other foreign languages, the situation is more like if you don't become proficient in English you will be disadvantaged enough in the job market to deter you from not learning it and in many countries, the percentage of people able to converse in English is now above 50%, and even above 80% in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

This increase in the importance of English has come only at the expense of the learning of other languages.  For example, with the perception that it is quite possible to get by in Germany because 'everyone speaks English', one's motivation for learning German decreases.  In short, whereas in the past, English would have been necessary to get by in the UK but useless on the Continent, now it is necessary in the UK and useful on the Continent and along with that, the indigenous languages of the Continent have become less necessary for a Foreigner to get by through in their own respective Homelands.   This is thus why European Languages that aren't English have become less popular not only among Brits but also among other Europeans.

But for those of us who aren't put off, trying to practice one's second language is made more difficult precisely because of the pre-eminence of English.  I know many people, me included in fact, who, when trying to practice in the Country that speaks the language they are trying to learn, get replied to in English or even told not to try altogether, simply because they have a non-native accent.  This doesn't happen to often to me in France but I imagine if I was in Sweden trying to learn Swedish I would probably have pulled my hair out after a day.  I know even know some people who lie about their nationality to pretend that they don't speak English so that they get a real opportunity to practice.

Thus, the best way for a European in today's Europe to become proficient in a foreign language is for English not to be the language of their Country.  Where in the United Kingdom has the highest percentage of bilinguals? It is not the cosmopolitan and well connected cities and conurbations, but the one area where an indigenous language other than English is still spoken by a majority of children as a mother tongue: the mountainous area of Gwynedd, where 59% of school children speak Welsh at Home (see my previous blog).

So when you compare an Englishman's ability to speak German with a German's ability to speak English, you must remember that you are not comparing like with like.  Should the Englishman speak just as good German as the German does English, it would not be a draw; the Englishman would win all the brownie-points.  Also, it must be noted that, because English has such a monopoly on Foreign Language learning on the Continent while due to it being our mother tongue, we don't have to focus on it, when we Brits do choose to learn Foreign Languages, we learn a more diverse range.  So for example, in a group of ten Germans with Foreign Language knowledge, all will speak English but probably nothing else, among a similar group of Brits with foreign language knowledge, some might speak French, German or Japanese for that matter.  Thus no single foreign Language will be spoken by nearly as high a proportion of people.

I therefore feel that for as long as English remains in such a preeminent position, we Brits will always be accused of being 'bad at learning Foreign Languages.'  Only when the different National Languages of Europe are equal will we Brits be freed from the cage of Monolingualism.