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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Tongue-tied: Why are the British hopeless at languages?
The British are lucky. They speak English and English is the global language of the world. But, according to a report by the Nuffield Foundation, this advantage has turned the UK into a land of "deplorable monolinguism".
They found that the teaching of modern languages at schools and to adults is so poor and under-resourced, that the British are left at the mercy of "the linguistic competence and goodwill of others".
How bad is that? Are languages crucial in today's global economy? Is it time to say adios to our splendid linguistic isolation and get stuck into some Spanish grammar? Or would you rather not have to grapple with those impossible pronunciations?
It is not only that the British won't learn other languages, but also that they have no respect for the foreigner's effort. I'm learning five languages at the moment, and I've been abroad and practised them all. The British (and the French) have no respect for our attempts. No matter how good you are, they seem to think that no one is up to the challenge of mastering their wonderful languages.
I spent 3 years in Germany in the early 90's and discovered that kids as young as five or six starting to learn basic English. We say that is too young to be learning a foreign language, when they haven't even learned enough English. That's why we will never change!
Just out of interest, does anyone out there speak Esperanto? I've just starting learning. It's easy to pick up, and I love the idea of being able to communicate in a world language that isn't English.
Frank Mulholland, Malta
I think the British have the chance to speak a global language. Learning a second language brings nothing when everybody you want to speak to understands English.
Every time I am on holiday in a foreign country where English is not the mother tongue I am ashamed to be British. Most British people and also Americans do not even have the courtesy to say "hello", "please" or "thank you" in the native language. Even if someone cannot speak another language, most of us would know how to say these things in German, French or Spanish.
Up until recently, I enjoyed speaking to my customers in their native tongue (Spanish and French; both in which I am fluent) until I was told not to by my boss as they were becoming 'too reliant' on me.
Why should the English abroad need to learn foreign languages, when universally recognised hand gestures and speaking loudly to the people usually suffice! Adding "O" to the end of each sentence or word often cuts through the confusion when ordering drinks or food in Latin countries!
As a British linguist who has lived and worked abroad for over twenty years, I can confirm that I see elements of truth in many of the above remarks. The fact remains that it does take a greater effort of willpower to learn and gain any fluency in a foreign language in Britain, which despite all efforts at European integration, still remains very much hampered by its geography. However, Brits should not delude themselves into thinking that all continentals speak English fluently or even well. Many people in Belgium, where I live, are excellent linguists with three or even four languages to their credit, but we're talking about educated, travelled people. The average German package tourist in Spain is just as unlikely to speak English or anything else as the average package tourist Brit.
The British and the Americans have the same problem with learning languages. It is called arrogance.
When I was young, I was told by my elders that I would never go abroad, so learning French was a waste of time. I didn't bother trying, and after seven years'
schooling, failed dismally.
Since then, I have been to France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. Each time, I try to learn a little of the language, but it is very hard now.
All I can do is encourage my children to learn languages - starting with
The worst thing about the English is that they speak their own language so badly, never mind any other language. Their icons are footballers and soap actors who speak diabolical and appalling English. The terrible irony is that the most articulate English spoken in the English football league was by a German, Juergen Klinnsman. Shame on the English!!
I was born and lived in South Africa for 22 years. In that time I have learnt 6 languages of which I speak 5 fluently. The Brits are far too arrogant to learn a new language.
David Dallmann, Hungary
It is not that the British or Americans are arrogant or lazy when it comes to learning a foreign language. All or most foreigners do learn English as their second language because English is the World language.
Having lived in The Netherlands for the past two years, I am still struggling to attain fluency in Dutch. The single great difficulty I find is pronunciation. I have had the same problem in France and Germany with their languages. So many people speak English as a second language that the English ear is fine-tuned to mangled English. However, an English speaker trying to speak another language has to master all the nuances of the target language immediately.
There is no obvious second language for a native English speaker. Besides, Bill Gates has already effectively determined that English will be the universal language of the world. Just for the record, I also speak German and French and have some rusty Latin.
Who says the Brits can't learn languages?
I'm currently learning my fifth. I think we are too ready to believe in the stereotype.
Don't be afraid of making mistakes and don't expect to learn overnight.
Andrew Leonard, UK
The best-written and spoken English requires Latin and ancient Greek.
I've noticed on various occasions how an English person abroad who wants to learn a language other than his own is faced with people who would rather speak his language than the other way around.
It should be compulsory for kids of 7 years and upward to learn a second language in the UK. I learnt Spanish in my mid-thirties and it was hard. I'm now over 50 and learning Portuguese. It is worth it
The English have no reason not to speak another language. In Luxembourg we have to speak foreign languages from six years of age.
I speak Spanish as my first language and have been speaking English for almost 15 years, I know that English speaking people have dominated the world for two centuries, but remember that the Spanish also dominated the world for 300 years, as well as the Romans, and the Arabs.
Dave Adams, USA
I can speak three foreign languages because I lived in three different countries and always made the effort to learn the language and because of this enriched my life greatly. What really annoys me is that there are English people who live in a foreign country for maybe twenty years and have not bothered to learn the language. It definitely stems from the British Empire mentality and that everything and everybody should speak English.
I speak Swahili and French in addition to my native English. I travel around the world on business, and very, very seldom do I have to call upon my knowledge of the languages other than English, even in Francophone nations.
What secondary language a person learns should depend where he/she lives. I'm from the state of Louisiana so I'm taking French in school so I can better understand the French/English mix some people speak here. Also, people shouldn't be offended just because someone doesn't know their language. That is awfully insensitive.
Europeans speak English so well because it is their second language. They need it to communicate with their own neighbours as much as they need it to communicate with people from the UK. When French and Germans need to communicate, English is the language they would usually use. I don't think it's fair to expect the British to master a second language that they have not been able to use, to the same extent that the Europeans have mastered English, which they are surrounded with anyway.
Don't blame us for our incompetence in other languages. It was our ancestors who controlled 3/4 of the world a few centuries ago, remember. If the Chinese had done that instead, we'd be having a go at them now for their linguistic incompetence
Living in California, I chose to learn Spanish as my second language because it is very useful here, with such a large Hispanic population. I would say my Spanish is as good as most non-native speakers' English. But one can only learn so many languages, so the French will still be angry if you cannot speak French, even if you speak Spanish and Italian.
Mr. Thornton makes a great point. Learning Japanese won't do you much good in South America. Spanish won't get you far in Africa. French won't help you much in Asia. But English will help you anywhere. So why bother to learn another language? Well, just like learning a musical instrument, it exercises the mind. I'm starting on my third language, Latin.
It has taken me a great deal of effort to become relatively fluent in Japanese. In the UK we need more exposure to foreign languages to understand the need to learn them and to understand our own language more. I'm totally embarrassed when I got to the Philippines and somebody, who has never been to school, speaks to me in fluent English because they picked it up from watching American movies.
If you are French/German/Spanish etc the obvious language to
learn as a second language is English. You will also be exposed
to many opportunities to practice.
If however, you are English the choice of second language is
not so obvious. I think in the UK we learn a greater variety of
languages and indeed London employers can find
a number of different language speakers to employ.
If you were to research European second languages other then
English the story would be the same as here.
Dan Peters, UK
It is odd how in many of the English speaking areas of the world I hear the same question "why can't we learn foreign languages." As an historian I know that it used to be common for us to be able to speak several languages. Perhaps if we all were serious about speaking those "other" languages we could teach the basics of English... Latin and German. Then we would at least have two.
I think its laziness on the part of British people not to learn other languages. I understand that English is the Global language but that is no excuse for us not to try and better ourselves. I speak French, German and Spanish and I find that when I visit countries speaking these languages, if I attempt to use them I am greeted far more warmly than if I expect them to understand my English. In our defence though, I am currently living in the US and I have to say that they are worse than we are. We at least attempt to teach our kids foreign languages, they really don't try very hard at all and expect everyone to understand them wherever they go.
M Kiener, British living in Switzerland
I think a large part of our inability to learn a foreign language with fluency is the poor teaching of the English language in our schools. We grow up knowing very little about the basic structure of the English language, and so when it comes time to apply technical knowledge to a foreign language we struggle to grasp the concept of different sentence structure. Without this fundamental basis, we may be able to memorise individual words but will never be competently putting them into sentences which make any sense to the native speaker.
It is not only the British who do not learn the language of others but the U.S. also has this same tendency. The reason may be that at one time Britain controlled about one-fourth the globe. In areas such as India and Africa learning English is now mandatory if a person wishes to succeed in life. Today the U.S. has even far more impact on the world that the British had and the use of the English language is now so wide spread that, in effect, it has become the universal language.
Work all over Europe and it is embarrassing when I have to sit in meetings in countries, like France, Holland etc., and they are forced to speak English because we can't speak their language.
It's true, in this country 'foreign' languages are not widely spoken. At least part of the problem is the fact that English (well US) culture is so widely spread around the globe, so that most other countries regard English as their second language. I've been in Germany and seen British or American programmes all evening.
I also feel (as a speaker of poor French and German) that the teaching is all wrong, the student is plunged into the technical aspects far to quickly. Frankly, I "learnt" more German spending time there than in hours of dry lessons at school.
One of the key reasons why we are
becoming a monolingual society is that
the teaching of English Grammar, has
all but disappeared in our schools! This
in turn proves problematic when we
attempt to learn a new language.
In German, there are 4 different cases:
These are Genetive, datve accusative,
and the Nominative. In English, there
is a similar structure, but unless you
know what form these structures take
in English, it is almost impossible to
understand why a certain sentence
takes a particular case in the foreign
British people are lazy at learning languages simply because it is the international language of business and tourism. I consider us lucky for this fact. However, it is still important that we learn other languages. When I go on holiday I always buy a phrase book so I can at least learn my pleases and thank yous.
There is nothing more frustrating than watching other Brits abroad trying to make people understand them when they don't speak English.
However I think most people would agree that Americans are far worse at this kind of behaviour than the Brits.
Graham Howard, British living in USA
Learning languages in schools is very important as you learn about a society as well as the language. However, more and more countries are speaking English as the universal language of business and so learning foreign languages is not very important any more except for when you are on holiday.
The English are guilty of verbal imperialism, attempting to speak the language of the country you are in, is common courtesy, it also helps an individual to develop a fuller experience of the people they encounter
It is deplorable. Even if you forget the cultural implications it is terrible that we are so ill educated that we, as a rule, don't speak foreign languages. However there is another aspect to this - I learnt French and German to a near-fluent standard, but have had so little cause to use this that today I'd say my French and German is almost completely forgotten. This is a result of the dominance of English as the international language. Since leaving school I've had so little recourse to use foreign languages that I've forgotten them! So next time I'm in Paris it'll be 'do you speak English?' It's a vicious circle now - people don't have the patience to wait for some idiot Englishman trying to recall his schoolboy German when their English is fluent.
We should all learn at least 2 other languages.
My view is that English is not taught properly. I didn't really start to understand grammar until I was taught foreign languages, and to have to try and learn grammar at that time meant that the actual language took a bit of a back seat.
Alan A, UK
The average foreigner in their local bar/pub is hardly interested in the effects of the global economy on what language they should speak. All he/she sees are arrogant poorly educated British people who expect them to speak English when we are in their country. I am sure many people have experienced the change of reception when they at least attempt to speak the local language. It's plain lazy not to learn how to say hello, please and thank you when travelling to foreign lands. Our European neighbours put us to shame.
Yes it is true Brits are not overly lingual, the fact that English is the dominant language makes the choice of a second language less obvious and more fragmented. It should be noted also that Americans are even worse probably for the same reason. And before anyone says it, yes lots of Americans do speak Spanish and other languages but nearly always due to ancestry.
10 May 00 | Education
Language learning in UK 'lags behind'
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