This article “Why do the English need to speak a foreign language when foreigners all speak English?” in the Daily Mail has sparked a lot of debate in the linguist community. The author, David Thomas, sets out his multilingual upbringing in the first few paragraphs but then swiftly descends to calling learning a language
a pleasant form of intellectual self-improvement: a genteel indulgence like learning to embroider or play the violin.
This inference that learning a foreign language is nice, but of no practical use is astounding. His “justification” for his rather xenophobic title line is the status of English as a global lingua franca. This may well be the case in a lot of circumstances – but isn’t Thomas rather missing the point?
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that my reasons for learning a language are many – I love languages, I am pursuing a career in languages, I like (and indeed feel a certain obligation) to make an effort when in foreign lands and not revert to English unless absolutely necessary. But all this aside, I can’t fathom the mindset of the person who says “why should I?” – I’m a “why shouldn’t I?” person. And except for those people who really do struggle with learning foreign languages (there’s no need to torture yourself, after all) I can’t think of a reason not to try. Learning a foreign language won’t damage you in any way; you can only gain by it, in greater cultural and linguistic understanding at the least, and at most in a broader range of friends, interests, job prospects, business potential….
When I visited Barcelona in 2009, my Spanish was a bit rusty – but in any case, shopkeepers and restauranteurs wanted to speak Catalan – not English. I was there with two other English girls, but rather than speak English when Spanish failed, we switched to French (we were all on a break from study abroad in France).
Once I was in Poland, experiencing the local bars where the bartenders spoke little or no English – but because I’d spent the previous year at uni doing extra credit in Russian this seemed to help – there were enough similarities for the level of communication we needed, anyway.
And on holiday in Greece, you get much better service and culture by throwing in some Greek at your local taverna – on Corfu, this led to us getting free sunbeds and a speedboat tour of the island’s caves – because the same family ran those and the taverna we spent many a meal in.
This month, I decided to pick up Mandarin again in earnest, via LiveMocha. The decision for this is partly business orientated – I can see the future prospects for Mandarin>English translation – but also because I personally wanted to learn another language, and not a Western language. The business decision came after the personal one.
Last year I read this book; “The Last Lingua Franca”, which challenges the notion of English as the all time global language, and instead points out the possibility of English declining somewhat, but not being replaced with any single language; instead we arrive at a global multilingualism. I’d just like to pull a few quotes out to counter Thomas’ claims.
He describes English as, among other things “above all, the language of the internet”. And yet, between 2000 and 2009, the number of Arabic users on the internet multiplied by 20, Chinese by 12…. English user numbers only tripled. Ostler also points out that the potential competitor languages to English as a lingua franca are “distinguished mostly in that their associated economies are outpacing those of the powers that naturally speak English”, and cites the increasing number and availability of language technologies as “sapping the need for any common lingua franca to support international communications”.
I would recommend that David Thomas reads this book and then reassess his position. And, in reply to his comment (which incidentally I do agree with!) that English pupils “might, of course, do well to become much, much better at speaking, writing, spelling and generally using English correctly” I will leave you with this quote from the front of Lingua Franca;
He who is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of his own. – Goethe