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.

No comments:

Post a Comment