National Comment Comment

Monolingual island: Britain's superiority complex

Let's cut 'le chat': Knowing just one word in another language is not good enough anymore; it's time for us all to change

Photo Credit: Sky One
Everyone speaks English, don’t they? Isn’t it the third most common mother tongue and most frequently learnt second language in the world, and anyway isn’t it the de facto international language of business, tourism, music and academia? And how are a Swede and Slovak meant to communicate otherwise, without resorting to mime or the questionable suggestions of Google Translate? Comparing broad Glaswegian, Aussie drawl and Canadian lilt shows us the incredible diversity and geographical spread of our language, arguably the most useful mother tongue on the planet.

The Anglophone phenomenon comes with its own bear traps. 61 per cent of British people can’t speak a single other language, so we receive the dubious award for the most monolingual country in Europe. There is something very British about the way we consistently overestimate the importance of our own language (only 38 per cent of EU citizens outside the UK and Ireland know enough English to have a conversation, and six of the world’s 7.5 billion speak no English at all) and find excuses not to learn anyone else’s.

We have an unfortunate tendency to reduce language to its functional value of bare bones communication; if person A from country B learns our word for C, we’re good. We persistently neglect that language is also intrinsically tied up with culture, identity and personality: “A different language is a different vision of life”, quipped Italian film director Federico Fellini.

Speaking only the language handed down to us by our parents means we miss a whole dimension of the human experience and the pleasure of authentically discovering another layer of cultural richness. I envy those with six languages at their fingertips. But when I came back from my Erasmus year in France (with a terrible suntan, several extra kilos and reluctance) I had learnt the words for bottle-opener, ski lift and puncture.

Without meaning to, I had also had a glimpse beyond the stereotypes of wine and shrugging; a glimpse of the differences in attitude to the work-life balance, perception of the role of the state, and emphasis on enjoying today rather than anticipating tomorrow. These deep cultural differences are linked to and expressed in the structure, vocabulary, idioms and intonation of the language, and are untranslatable.

The first (painful) lesson for me was that scrambling around for an impossible-seeming pronunciation or a but-I-only-learnt-it-yesterday conjugation requires a willingness to be vulnerable. More simply, I found it unreasonably terrifying.

Sticking to good old English (probably raising our voice, just to make sure we’re understood) shields us from failure but also from the thrill of occasionally, eventually, getting it right. Sticking to good old English also makes it much harder to recognise the effort made when someone learns to speak it, and more fundamentally, to learn to communicate across cultures and put themselves in others’ shoes.

Monolingualism is an outward sign of our delusion of exaggerated national greatness and reinforces a feeling that the world should come to us. Nowhere is this complex better represented than the Brexit debate. “Believe in Britain! The EU will come crawling!” was the main 'argument' shouted at me while I was, undoubtedly very annoyingly, shoving leaflets into hands in York city centre last weekend. The claim hardly speaks of a humble acknowledgement of cultural tolerance, understanding and mutual respect.

I’m not aware of any statistics linking language learning to the Remain vote, but I would bet my degree on the correlation being a strong one. The usefulness of being a native English speaker is undeniable. Being able to (probably) get by in our first language in Vienna, Venice and Vilnius is pretty great. But we should recognise that this is a privilege that leads us to put on linguistic and cultural blinkers. Without these, we might feel closer to our European neighbours, in spite of the ocean between us.

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1 Comment

A mildly irked postgrad Posted on Saturday 8 Aug 2020

Well as any student should know, correlation in no way means causation.


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