The British have never had much of a taste for learning foreign languages and as English becomes Europe's lingua franca, that stubbornness is starting to pay off. But if everyone else can speak English, what does that mean for our sense of identity?
On a train from Brussels to Gent in Belgium this week, the ticket inspector asked me in English where I was getting off. "Ghent [Chent]" I answered, anxious to show that I was willing to make an effort with Belgian pronunciation, and showing off, I suppose, for the benefit of the young colleagues travelling to the Anglo-Dutch history conference with me. He responded with a torrent of incomprehensible Flemish.
"Sorry", I said in some embarrassment, "I mean 'Gent'". He lapsed immediately into flawless English. Which was just as well, since the information he was trying to give us was that in order to leave the train at Gent, we had to be travelling in the front four carriages of the train.
Inner-city schools commonly host non English-speaking children
As we were to discover during our three-day stay, the Belgians and the Dutch move effortlessly between Dutch (or Flemish as the Belgians would prefer), French and English. They are competent German-speakers, and not averse to trying their hand at Italian and Spanish. In the Low Countries you are greeted fearlessly, with cheerful attention and direct eye-contact. In whatever language you speak to them, they are pretty sure they will be able to understand and respond appropriately.
To my twenty-something-year-old British companions this felt truly European. They expressed delight, not only at the shared, effortless means of communication, but also at the extraordinary similarities in interests and outlook between themselves and the young Dutch and Belgian historians at the conference. They all shopped at cheap-and-cheerful clothing stores like Hennes and Zara; they spent their leisure time in the same pursuits, downloading music, going to the movies... and, it turned out, digging their allotments.
In the week leading up to Europe Day [9 May] this all sounds wonderfully optimistic. The founding charter of the European Union extolled the virtues of a multilingual community, of shared values and mutual respect among the member states. The new, ill-fated draft constitution, voted into oblivion last year, first by the French and then by the Dutch themselves, reaffirmed those commitments.
But while the rest of Europe embraces the variety of European languages, Britain seems bent on becoming determinedly monolingual. A recent survey for the European Commission revealed that two out of three Britons are unable to speak a language other than English. The number of students studying A-level French has dropped by two thirds over the past 10 years.
Britons believe that there is really no need for them to learn any other European language, when in the end everyone aspires to speak theirs.
So does it matter that the British appear to have decided that they need no second European language? Personally, I think it does. I am of immigrant stock; my grandparents arrived here from Poland and Latvia as economic migrants in the 1910s. As children, both my parents spoke languages other than English at home. Both grew up to speak flawless English themselves. The story my father used to tell us was that as a recent arrival from Poland, aged 12, he took a bus from his home to the Whitechapel library (sadly closed in 2005), and there borrowed two books: Frederick Marryat's 1850s adventure classics, Masterman Ready and Midshipman Easy.
We used to tease him that Captain Marryat's 19th Century nautical prose had helped form my father's elegantly precise and slightly mannered way of speaking English.
My sisters and I were raised in a home in which only English was spoken, but my parents insisted that we acquire a second language too. They were convinced that learning an unfamiliar language makes one conscious of the mechanics of language-speaking, how language works as the bridge between us and those around us. With a second language a speaker becomes aware of the way the words they use shape their capacity to think; the way choices of words and modes of expression nuance our feelings and enhance our imagination.
Of course, significant numbers of those living in Britain today do speak more than one language. The children of recent immigrants speak one language at home and another at school just as my parents did. Where they spoke Polish or Yiddish, these children speak Bengali or Hindi. At Westminster City School in inner-city London, where my own son went to school almost half [49%] of the 750 boys speak English as what Ofsted calls an "additional language". Are these, then, potentially the flexible, outward looking members of our community who will be able to keep pace with the multilingual inhabitants of mainland Europe?
Mind you, although the average British teenager seems confident that English will enable them to get by anywhere, the EU administration is equally clear that no one language ought to be allowed to dominate. European Union documentation still refuses to acknowledge the fact that English has become Europe's lingua franca, insisting that the languages of all the member states weigh equally.
How many English children know what their French counterparts are saying here?
To the obvious question, "Why not adopt a single language for business?", posed on an official website, the answer given is categorical: There is no obvious language to choose. The EU language with the largest number of native speakers is German; the languages with the largest number of native speakers worldwide are Spanish and Portuguese; French is one of the official languages of three Member States (France, Belgium and Luxembourg).
As for English: "Although it is the most widely known language, recent surveys show that fewer than half the EU population have any usable knowledge of it." Wishful thinking, I'm afraid. For ease of communication among the enlarged membership, for everyday business and exchange of information, English will inevitably be used.
This is not the first time that Europe has embraced a lingua franca. At the beginning of the 16th Century, Latin was the language of choice for educated Europeans, who reserved their national vernaculars for commerce and the domestic sphere. The great linguist, theologian, author and educator Erasmus of Rotterdam - a favourite Renaissance figure of mine - presided over a pan-European educational system designed to instil good, elegant Latin into all citizens.
In classroom textbooks and scholarly editions he argued that the language of ancient Rome contained within it the seeds of universal human values and an international ethic of compassion and tolerance. Erasmus's textbook, On Copious Speaking and Writing, which went into dozens of editions, taught the student how to say "thank you for your letter" in 150 different, equally elegant ways. By mastering Latin, Erasmus maintained, anyone could become a European.
But around 1515 Erasmus began to identify himself, in the prefaces and introductions to his works, as a Dutchman - as someone whose ideas and values were rooted in the northern Netherlands. And he did so because he had begun to realise that it is not enough to identify with the shared values of Europe as a whole. Each individual still needed a sense of belonging to a smaller group, with whose customs and way of life they could identify. We cannot be sure what changed Erasmus's mind, but it marked the beginning of the rise of the European vernaculars, the emergence of the modern nation state, and the demise of Latin.
With so many member states, Euro MPs often resort to a translation service
Watching the easy mingling of the young British, Belgian and Dutch at my conference this week it was clear to me that they are all now confidently European in their habits and outlook. So perhaps I have reluctantly to concede that it may not be necessary for the British, who have the good fortune to speak the European lingua franca as their mother tongue, to be made to learn a second language. They can do alright without it, and after all, they can learn any specified language later, as the need arises.
But if that is the case, then the pressure on English as our mother tongue becomes intense. Unlike our Belgian and Dutch neighbours, it is the only language we have in which to learn to understand ourselves and others. If (as Erasmus thought) our emotional bearings are rooted locally, in the language of the place we call "home", then we are going to have to turn our attention fully and energetically towards English as the source and historical origin of understanding for the British Isles.
In its rich literature and history, in the nuanced subtleties of its meaning, must lie our own peculiar sense of belonging. For us, English is far more than the 21st Century European lingua franca. It is the bedrock upon which our sense of what it is to be British is built.
If we abandon all attempts to teach foreign languages to English children, we only make ourselves even more insular and smug in our own "superiority". We must reach out and understand the minds of our European neighbours. By learning their languages, we enter their thinking - surely an advantage.
In fact, although the Dutch and the Belgians are often fluent in languages other than their own, this certainly does not apply to the French who find it insulting that we, as a nation, make little attempt to speak their language.
My personal experience is that being able to speak both French and German has opened many doors which might otherwise have been closed, apart from enabling to intergrate fully in their societies.
brenda, Huntingdon UK
Well, Im a Modern Languages student in the UK. Im also British. I would agree with most of what Ms Jardine has to say - young non-British europeans who I have met do tend to have a good knowledge of english. However, it is not a universal thing - In Germany for example there are three different types of secondary school and only in the 'Gymnasium' (similar to a Grammar School) do students actually become fluent in a second language (usually English or french). What frightens me the most is that it is not uncommon for a German to correct an Englishman's grammar as he speaks his mother tongue. If I had not chosen to study modern languages i would have known very little about my own language - I think British schools should teach their own language properly, before they encourage the mastery of a second one!
I applaud this article, just as I despair at reports of increasingly reduced numbers of students doing A Level languages.
A Catalan friend of mine best illustrates the European willingness to learn languages. She has Catalan as her mother-tongue, and also speaks Spanish. In addition she did English and German at university, and is now an English teacher and attempting to bring up her 2 year old son tri-lingual in Catalan-Spanish-English. It puts the English to shame!
Samantha, London, UK
As an modern languages undergraduate, I spent all of last year abroad and was shocked by how many people in these countries were surprised to find an English girl able to speak their language. Our reputation as a country of monolinguists is already established and I find that fact very sad. Even if English has become a lingua franca, it is only common courtesy to at least attempt to learn languages spoken elsewhere, instead of simply expecting that everyone will speak English. It is to be hoped that this situation will not last for ever.
Anne Hardisty, Durham
I think the problem with the English speakers learning a second language is that there really isn't an obvious second language to learn. I studied French at school, then in the early 90's I spent a lot of time working in Europe, but I was never sent to France. Sadly, my limited French wasn't much use in the countries that I did visit. I am sure that if there was an obvious, really useful, 2nd language for us to learn, we would. (For what it is worth, as I approach middle age, I have joined that diminishing number who are studying "A" level French!)
John Marshall, Swindon, England.
I was raised bilingually, as we spoke Welsh at home, I received most of my education through the medium of Welsh, and inevitably picked up English to a standard of first language speaker due its sheer dominance in the world. This has been a huge advantage when learning other languages - in the language class I now attend, monoglot English speakers rarely last a term as they cannot comprehend simple grammar issues that do not exist in English. Children should start learning a language as soon as they start primary education as it is not only the best age to learn but also gives them a foothold on the languages ladder for years to come. No wonder no one want to learn languages here when we don't bother trying until they're all tongue tied teenagers.
Elllie, Mid Wales
Typically tiresome argument, encapsulating the arrogance with which many English people confuse 'Britishness' and 'Englishness' and supposed notions of shared culture. As a Scot, who has had to use English to participate fully in the UK, I feel more kinship with my fellow Europeans who use English, albeit with an American twang, to communicate within an enlarged EU. If English is to become the common language within Europe, the important issue for Europe and the UK is to ensure that minority languages and dialects are kept alive. Surely we should be bemoning the loss of Welsh, Scots, Gaelic, Cornish and numerous local dialects under the intense pressure of the success of English?
While the "second language" taught in English schools continues to be an almost internationally redundant anachronism, what incentive is there? Spanish is the most widely spoken language after English and is far more useful than French ever has been or ever will be. Japanese and/or Chinese would be extremely useful but would be very difficult to be introduced widely.
Andrew Hodkin, Madrid, Spain
Were it not for the coincidence that our language is that of the USA we would be forced to learn other languages. Our arrogant approach to other laguages is worse than that of the French who are fighting a losing battle against the assimilation into French of words and phrases from other languages, notably English. One thing that characterises the English language is that we have never been afraid to assimilate in this fashion and thus we all speak a foreign language - English.
Chris Leavold, Cornwall, England
Speaking another language leads to a greater understanding of other cultures, which is increasingly necessary in a globalised world. The key is for children to become immersed in other languages as early as possible. My children, aged 6 and 9, are tri-lingual and this hasn't held back their development in other areas.
Tom Kennedy, Montpellier, France
The problem with learning any language is that it is of limited use. Sure, I could learn French, but what good would it do me in Germany? Or India, or China for that matter.
We are spoiled in that English is the most popular second language for most of the world. Learning English is useful to anyone - people of all nationalities can communicate using it as a lingua franca.
My aversion to learning a language is based not so much on laziness as the lack of a practical benefit.
Language is an important part of the human experience, but only a part, for people who cannot exchange meaningful words nevertheless can communicate, at least when together.
English is not 'the source and historical origin of understanding for the British Isles' any more than it is that for the USA. 'Understanding' depends on the human experience, and that extends across much more than language.
Aldo, Swindon UK
My children speak Welsh, spent 5 years in Holland and learnt to speak Dutch and German fluently. When coming back to the UK they both found the way of teaching languages to be decidedly uninteresting. One has continued with German A level, using her prior experience, the other decided that even though he speaks Dutch and German that the UK system was just too boring for words.
Look no further - it is not the kids, it is the teaching, curriculum and condescending relationship between teacher/pupil in british high schools. There is more of an equality on the continent when dealing with young adults.
Just talk to any teenager in the UK these days and i am sure you would agree it is far from English they speek not to mention text mesages.
Jonathan Hall, Chester
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