Mind Your Language: Why We Must Learn Foreign Dialects

We are growing progressively closer to cementing Britain’s reputation as an insular, monolingual country once and for all; what’s more, such a reputation is well-deserved. Michael Gove, despite shamefully half-hearted displays of “concern” at dwindling numbers of British linguists, recently drew attention to Britain’s “perverse pride” in not knowing any languages, and to a nation who arrogantly expects to speak their own language in loud voices when abroad, but would be irate if any tourist in Britain followed suit.

In the UK, we’re lucky if even top politicians speak another foreign language; on the continent, it’s often impressive to find one member of the McDonalds staff who doesn’t speak fluent English. It may have surprised few when The Times reported a steep decline in university applications for foreign languages – non-European language applications are down by 21.5 percent – but my languages degree renders me sufficiently biased to see this as a significant opportunity to fiercely defend foreign languages more than ever.

The eternally wise Daily Mail recently advised its readership that language learning is futile, as “foreigners all speak English”. Anyone who may share this view should consider suing their former maths teacher: 75 percent of the world’s population do not speak English, which hardly constitutes even a majority.

In any case, a utilitarian attitude towards the importance of learning any subject only succeeds in proving our ignorance. You may not devote your life to holidaying in France, but this hardly renders the study of French language and culture futile: does it matter whether the translator of the works of Descartes was a keen traveller?

The benefits of learning a language are innumerable, and all too often ignored. Studying any new language strengthens command of your mother tongue: type any foreign phrase into Google Translate and you can only laugh at the drivel it responds with. It’s not as simple as translating every phrase directly into another language, word for word; language learning instead requires consideration of every minute detail of a sentence.

Linguists develop enhanced communication skills and the ability to effectively persuade others in several languages. Even if the stereotype of nerdy and socially inept mathematicians talking to their feet is unfounded, these students may actually have found basic interaction skills more useful than linear algebra when facing a job interview.

More importantly, learning another language allows us to gain access to another culture, another lifestyle and another nation of fascinating people. What better way to both silence and convert xenophobic tabloid readers than by teaching them not only to tolerate, but to actually appreciate difference?

Gove also tells us that neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning, rendering us linguists smarter than the rest of you (amen to that). Plus, Nick Clegg speaks five languages: so, if all else fails, you can forge a successful career as public enemy number one.

The UK is becoming increasingly unrepresented in the EU due to poor language skills amongst the British workforce, yet Brits are still shamefully unwilling to learn another language. They often argue that it’s “easier” to pick up a foreign language in other European countries, thanks to constant exposure via English-speaking films, music and television shows. I currently reside in Germany and can assure you that this is the case.
However, in an age of downloading, where every song ever written is at our fingertips, teenagers can expose themselves to whatever music they desire to listen to. What matters is not exposure, but choice.

German teenagers are enthusiastic about widening their vocabulary by listening to English music. British teenagers, in stark contrast, view any song not performed by one of the current English or American pop chart beloveds as outdated and unworthy of a listen.

Both the problem and the solution lie therein: only an overhaul of British attitudes can spur our nation of monoglots into action. Until we have tackled the arrogance of most Brits in their attitude towards foreign languages, we will only succeed in creating a new generation of children who can count to ten in a poor French accent and believe that this valiant effort renders them fluent.

The arrogance and lack of enthusiasm displayed by Brits is counter-productive: a proud, patriotic nation has nothing to be proud of when it becomes an alienated island. As famously summarised by Wittgenstein: “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”. If you’ve just reached for the dictionary, I give up.

Taken from The Boar: 22.02.12