The usual The English must all learn another language piece


But our European neighbours also learn English in large numbers, and soon the only monoglots left will be British. A monolingual society in Britain is no more likely to be successful than those that exist in the Amazon jungle and New Guinea. The upper classes will presumably continue to cultivate languages because elites know how to reproduce themselves (the present cabinet is the most polyglot in recent history). But schools are failing everybody else by not insisting that a far larger proportion of the rising generation acquire a good knowledge of at least one foreign tongue.


The one no one ever seems to have an answer to is, OK, but which foreign language?

And no, from bitter personal experience I will not accept the answer that having learnt some of one then learning some of another is easier. It ain\’t.

So, let\’s work from personal experience here. As a child I learnt a little bit of Italian. Only a bit mind. Then at school some French. Very much schoolboy French but it\’s enough that if I go and actually stay in France then after a couple of weeks I\’m just about able to tell a joke in a pub. This ain\’t fluency by any means.

Then I worked in Russia for a time. Learnt enough Russian to have business meetings in the language but not the social language. I can\’t discuss Dostoyevsky in Russian for example. But then I can\’t do that in English either. Living in Portugal has given me supermarket Portuguese. I can get my meat cut the right way, order bottles of gas etc. But I actually live and work in English so no more than that. And now I\’m in Czech and German. I actually find the former easier (although I\’m told that I speak my few words of it with a terrible Russian accent that doesn\’t go down well) and the latter, well, sorry, I just don\’t get it at all. I can, for example, count in Czech but not in German.

So, to those who insist that I should have learnt a language other than English properly. Which one? Over the past 50 years, which one should I have put the couple of thousand hours of study into? That couple of thousand hours which is necessary (ie, that\’s a full working year) to gain some reasonable level of fluency? I would assume that no one at all thinks I should have tried to learn all six.

Or, more pithily, if the English must learn another language, which fucking one?

32 thoughts on “The usual The English must all learn another language piece”

  1. A couple of comments on the article “just one small group … british school children”. Well lets have a look at the total population of countries which only speak English. Britian, The United States, Canada, Australia (OK some people in Canada speak French as well) but we are talking close to 400 million people where second languages are non-existant and there is no realistic need to learn anything other than English at school. That is a pretty big number and while the US of A remains the biggest economy in the world, and steadfastly monoglot, the need to speak English will continue to dominate.

    Of course if the British were to learn a second language, which one should it be? Of the European languages the only one which makes sense if probably spanish given the rather large number of spanish speakers in the emerging south american economies, or should that be portuguese given Brazil. Actually neither makes any sense as the prospect of Britian doing enormous amounts of business with South America is pretty small as for them there is a much larger market which is much closer to them in North America.

    So what about Mandarin. Yep lots of people speak it but really, how much business is Britian going to do with China? Its a pacific state which is in the wrong time zone and geographically proximate to the first and second largest economies in the world. Mandarin makes sense for British Columbia and Australia, not that much call for it in Britian.

    The remaining european languages are simply not widely spoken (latvian anyone) or unnecessary as they speak English (the swedes speak better english than the Aussies). So realistically the only language which makes any sense is probably Russian. Quite close to Britain, lots of economic ties, plenty of russians don’t speak English.

    However I am pretty sure the Guardianistas were thinking of French and not the language of Vladimir Putin and Chelsea dwelling oligarchs.

    So Tim, you hit the nail on the head, better to spend thier time leaning maths and science rather than a second language which they will never really need.

  2. English is the world’s second language, not so that they can talk to us or other English speaking countries, but so that they can talk to each other.

    On which second language we should learn, in my schooldays we were told French because it was the language of diplomacy, but my experience is that the French are the least tolerant when someone is trying to use their language. Germans, however, I have found to be very tolerant to the point that they switch to English once they realise you have made an effort, which doesn’t help with continuing to learn.

    In most Asian countries I have found they are really appreciative if you have learned enough to say please and thank-you and are quite happy to speak English.

    What we get wrong in this country is an insistence that languages have to be learned with academic rigour right from the start rather than as a bit of fun. That soon puts children off as they see no benefit to learning the language so they don’t then want to go on to learn the language and culture with some discipline. In other countries they get exposed to English through TV so children have some fun learning it and see a benefit.

  3. Language teaching sucks – really really sucks – in the UK and most other places. It’s based on a language theory that is at least 60 years out of date – that learning a language is an academic pursuit in the same way that learning history is.

    It ain’t. Language is as instinctual as using your hands or walking, and should be developed in the classroom (at least initially) in the same way.

  4. Largely agree with most of Offshore Observer’s points but would point out that a growing number of English-speaking Americans (especially in the southern states) speak Spanish as a day-to-day second language.

    If even an east coast toff like George Bush speaks pretty decent Spanish then there is clearly a major trend underway.

  5. Simply put, when you already know the lingua franca of the day, that’s it, sorted, for doing business. If you want kids to learn a language, then JavaScript is probably the best thing they could be spending their time on.

  6. Surreptitious Evil

    Further to SimonF’s point about Germans …

    When I was working in Frankfurt, I got pretty reasonable at the very basic restaurant, bar and taxi German. To the extent that the taxi driver would sometimes try to speak back to me in German before switching to English as a result of my obvious and utter incomprehension.

    The only person who would not speak English with me, on business, was a French senior exec at Commerzbank.

  7. When you are talking at this level (education of an entire country), which *one* is a bit of a daft question.

    It would be a bit like trying to decide whether studying Chemistry or Maths at A-level is better.

    Sure, for the individual it could be pretty important. But not so much for the country as a whole.

    On a population level, more people speaking more languages is very likely to be a useful thing – especially if done (at the article hints) in a less formal way. A good friend of mine speaks Spanish & French fluently – he say he learnt both by playing football with French & Spanish kids.

    (Admittedly, if lots of people swapped their maths a-level for French, I doubt that would be all that helpful!)

  8. I don’t think that, even at it’s wildest shores, the article was suggesting we should all learn the same foreign language…

    It doesn’t matter which language particularly, but any one of the former colonial languages (French last as there’s less point in learning a dying language) or Mandarin would pretty much cover the bases.

    The specific choice can be left up to parents and children.

  9. Surely the best answer is to make sure you have English as your second language?

    So if I redefine myself as a Geordie, who speaks Geordie first and English second but whose Geordie has atrophied due to the oppressive ubiquity of Standard English meaning that I hardly ever use it these days, can I get kudos for knowing two languages AND being an oppressed ethnic minority?

  10. I’m seriously thinking about learning a language no-one else speaks. Then, if confronted by authority, I can stand on my rights & refuse to communicate except via an interpreter.

  11. How long, realistically, will it be before technology makes language learning obsolete. You can already get some web pages to translate (so in theory, if you and the other party are together physically and have phones with the net on you could write to each other and have it (roughly) translated there and then)
    In 10/20 years your phone will hear what they say and repeat it back to you in English(and will be able to do the reverse back to them in the unlikely event that they don’t have such a phone themselves).
    Of course, the downside is that the shite at the NSA will be the third party in all your foreign conversations.

  12. I suspect that the actual language doesn’t matter. This is a social differentiator. I speak another language therefore I am superior to you.

  13. Granted there is no one language an English speaker can learn with the same universal utility as English, but that is not the only reason to learn languages.

    Boxers learn to skip, not because they compete in skipping races, but because it makes them lighter on their feet.

    Learning languages improves linguistic (communication and comprehension) skills, verbal and written.

    French makes up one third of English and Latin is at the root of most European languages. Learning those two trains the mind and gives an insight into language structure and use, including our own, which we do not otherwise get.

  14. Doug Young, you are right.

    Children are most receptive to learning another language at kindergarden level, but there are no teachers trained for the age group and all the teachers want to teach stroppy teenagers about grammar.

  15. A Spanish friend thinks he has done quite well out of learning Latin, believe it or not. He is fluent in English and has some knowledge of French, Italian and Romanian.

  16. You could write a World History based entirely on the fact that “elites know how to reproduce themselves” is complete bollocks.

  17. I’m learning French, and I’ve never had a problem with French not wanting me to speak it to them, neither in Paris nor in the office. With the exception of one Parisian waiter, everyone’s been quite pleased.

  18. @Mr Ecks, It could be some time before technology can do it. Of course it can already do some of this, but with serious reliability problems. Learn a foreign language to the extent that you can make your own jokes and puns in it. Go a stage further to neologisms (German is of course brilliant for this). There are endless ways in which to confuse a computer.

    I’d hesitate to say never, but I tend to think that way. Language simply isn’t a binary thing. But I agree, the economic benefits from language learning are likely to reduce over time. Thing is we could say that about almost anything. It seems these days you need a PhD or 20 years in some very obscure field to earn much above a median salary, so essentially all that schooling (including contemporary “university” “education”) is worth very little, except to the select few that go on to higher things.

    So language learning becomes more entertainment and less economics. We teach kids music and geography as well though because the benefits of education are not so easy to define in cash terms.

  19. French or Portuguese. For geographical coverage, combined with reasonable ease of use. Combined with English, you cover the usual Anglo places, plus either Brazil and a fair amount of Africa, or usual Anglo places plus ex-French colonies.

    And don’t bother with anything in which there are or will be loads of bilingual British or British resident people who will always be better than you. So no Gujarati, Urdu, Polish etc.

  20. Why not just leave it to the market to decide. No language classes at school nor should it appear in the curriculum.

    Yes, many will not bother as they will find that the little foreign they need can be skipped when the other party speaks enough English to allow whatever conversation to take place. Those that need it can learn it as necessary. They get the jobs and are paid accordingly.

    Not everyone will be like Tim and need multiple languages. I suspect the 80/20 rule will dictate that 80% of the population don’t need any foreign language skills whilst the other 20 do. And of those 20%, 80% will only need a single language with the others needing at least two. That leaves Tim as the 1%.

  21. SimonF said: “In most Asian countries I have found they are really appreciative if you have learned enough to say please and thank-you and are quite happy to speak English.”

    Perhaps languages at school could be learning to get by in many rather than trying to be fluent in one.

  22. Spanish, as second language in US and a few other places, and first language in most of Latin America, has a great literature.

    Alternatively, French plus German as the two parents of English will broaden your understanding of English.

    Anything else, purely as necessity imposes itself.

  23. I’m not sure we ought to pick a second language based on utility, so much as on the ease with which it can be used as a stepping-stone to another language. Romanian, for example, is in many ways very similar to English, and so very easy to learn. It then makes it much easier for an English speaker to pick up Italian. With English, Italian, and Romanian, you could learn Spanish very easily. Spanish to French with that background is just a short hop.

    Similarly, there’s a route into the Germanic languages via Dutch, which is a particularly easy language to acquire once you get to grips with the pronunciation and phonetics and realise it’s marginally less different to English than what they speak in Yorkshire.

  24. “Oh Why can’t the English” – if the English keep descending into lower class speech they will soon have a dialect that only they can understand.

    Tim adds: Hah! That one makes sense. After 20 years abroad I’ve a rather archaic BBC type of accent. Slow and deliberate (when speaking to non-native English speakers) and here in Czech I’m regularly getting the comment “But why can I understand his English when I can’t understand what the hell anyone else is saying in English?”

    I usually answer “‘Coz I is trying to be understood”. Although, given that slow and deliberate, it’s really, “Because…I am….trying….to be…..understood”.

  25. I’m surprised that no one so far has mentioned Esperanto as an answer to the question “Which one?”.

    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job.

  26. I recently blogged of how, of the 12 richest cities in the world which aren’t capital cities, 8 are English speaking (Hong Kong & Singapore being the ones where the hinterland speaks foreign). This may be something to do with the advantages of the thousands of hours needed to master a language being used for productive work.

    Singapore, decades ago, made the commercial decision to promote English through the education system rather than Chinese, which currently looks like the best competitor and is the native language of most Singaporeans.

  27. I speak fluent Spanish but then I live in Latin America. You don’t need to learn Spanish even here, though, because it is perfectly possible to exist here without it. It makes you a bit of a clod, in my opinion, but there’s a pretty huge opportunity cost with doing anything as challenging as learning a foreign language. It may be a desideratum in the abstract but it competes against other desiderata. Really, it makes no more sense to say that everyone ‘ought’ to learn a foreign language than that everyone ‘ought’ to learn to play a musical instrument.

  28. @David you can get by without learning the language anywhere except the U.S., most likely. Even then, you’re probably ok. However, the reason you’re better off as an English speaker is that everyone everywhere else has taken the time to learn English.

  29. I would imagine that the language you choose to learn isn’t all that important. It’s just the fact that you DO speak another language that is important. It helps to make the world more “globalized”, and to be honest, it just makes you more intelligent and marketable.

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