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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May 2004, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
MPs reveal language skills
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

House of Commons
MPs can heckle in 22 languages, a survey suggests
A fifth of the UK's MPs describe themselves as bi-lingual, and one in 12 say they are "multi-lingual", according to a survey.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) found French was the most popular second language, followed by German.

Spanish, in seventh place, was beaten by Latin, Italian, Russian and Welsh.

Top of the class of more than 100 MPs who responded to the survey was Martin Linton, the Labour MP for Battersea, who spoke six languages.

'Avid Norwegian reader''

These were: English, Italian, Swedish, French, German and Welsh.

Perhaps with those long, light Scandinavian nights during the summer recess in mind, Mr Linton also claimed he could read Norwegian and Danish.

He said: "If you're going to spend anything more than a few days in a country, you should make an effort to learn a bit of the language.

"You're more likely to enjoy it. You're less likely to be ripped off. And it's also a matter of courtesy and respect.

Martin Linton MP
Martin Linton MP: no soft touch in a Danish bistro

"I find it embarrassing when English people assume that they can make themselves understood abroad just by speaking loudly and slowly to waiters."

Of the respondents to the survey, 19% said they were bi-lingual, and 8% multi-lingual.

Just under two-thirds said they were enthusiastic to learn a foreign language - though only 6% said they were actually doing so.

The MPs questioned spoke 22 languages between them.

Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, said, "In a population that has a poor reputation for speaking foreign languages, MPs compare well against the national picture and deserve full credit.

Polish builders

"Speaking other languages is one of Britain's vulnerabilities, whether you are managing a building site in central London - where there's no doubt that a few words of Polish or Hungarian will help - or if you are going on a trade visit as a member of parliament, if you have a smattering of the language you get a better quality of experience."

Mr Linton said: "I had a head start because I was brought up bilingually in English and Swedish because my mother insisted that I should keep up my Swedish even though we left that country when I was four.

"I do occasional interviews for French and Swedish TV, so they must think I'm at least relatively fluent, and I think I could still get by in German. My other languages are pretty basic.

"But if that's good, it shouldn't be. My language skills would hardly even rank as average in some other European countries, especially the smaller countries, where it's not unusual for people to speak four languages fluently."

He added: "We English are far too lazy at learning languages. We're spoilt by the corrosive and hugely exaggerated notion that everyone speaks English.

"This is an arrogance that can be our undoing. We need foreign languages if we are going to understand what is going on in other countries."

The poll of MPs was conducted to promote Adult Learners' Week, which runs from 15 to 21 May.

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