The British Council: Proof Perfect Of Bureaucratic Creep

Britain’s future economic prosperity and global standing is under threat because of an “alarming shortage” in the number of people who can speak a foreign language, according to research.

Figures show that just a quarter of adults can now hold even a basic conversation with someone in a language other than English.

French is the most commonly spoken foreign language in the UK – used by 15 per cent of people – followed by just over one-in-20 who can understand German.

But almost every other major language such as Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese is alien to the vast majority of English speakers in Britain.

The research, commissioned by the British Council, also revealed that UK schoolchildren are now less likely to speak a foreign language than those in any other European nation.

Folks, your job is to project our culture to them.

Running a survey on how many of Johnny Foreigner speak English would be well within your remit. As would be suggesting that more be done to teach them the English English variant.

However, just as with the Foreign Office, the sort of people who go off to spread our culture to the foreigns tend to be those who are rather more enamoured of the culture of the foreigns than the one they’re supposed to be spreading. Thus we get this sort of nonsense. Britain must be more like the places where you need three languages to get through to lunchtime (something that has happened to me just recently).

Get back to what you’re supposed to be doing, not what you’d like to be doing.


Via Twitter I am sent this excellent looking report (in French) which looks at the percentage of people in various other countries that have some command of English.

That’s the sort of thing the British Council should be worrying about.

15 thoughts on “The British Council: Proof Perfect Of Bureaucratic Creep”

  1. Try projecting British culture in China if you don’t speak Chinese.

    In fact, try projecting British culture in Germany if you don’t speak German.

    The only non-Anglophone place you could plausibly do it is the Netherlands, but then the culture and language there is so similar to the UK that you don’t need to do much projecting.

    So actually, speaking foreign is really important to getting your culture (and business) out there in the world. But then I guess I have a dog in the fight so am somewhat biased.

  2. Figures are clearly balderdash. There are clearly not 15% of UK adults who can “use” French, if by “use” you mean being able to have a conversation with a Frenchman more complicated than asking where his aunt’s pen happens to be.

    But more seriously would the British Council be equally surprised to learn that Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic are alien to pretty much everyone in the world bar non-native speakers.

  3. But almost every other major language such as Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese is alien to the vast majority of English speakers in Britain.

    Hmm. Couldn’t this be more generically put:

    But every other major language, with the exception of (American) English, is alien to the vast majority of {native language} speakers in {whatever country}.

    Pick one non-native language, anywhere, and work out what %age of people are comfortable speaking in it?

    On JamesV’s point – well, yes. But I’ve successfully done business in France, Germany and Latin America with schoolboy French and bar German and Spanish. If there is mutual advantage in it, people are generally willing to play along. Now, if some bureaucrat is trying to ‘educate’ me, then I’m going to give him somewhat less leeway.

  4. “Try projecting British culture in China if you don’t speak Chinese.”

    JKRowling seems to have done ok. Pretty sure Chinese have learnt more about British boarding schools, attitudes to Daily Mail readers in the suburbs and the UK transport system from Harry Potter than anything the British Council has done.

    See also Downton Abbey, Mr Bean, Top Gear etc.

  5. I suppose the big exception might be India, where most educated people can get by in Hindi and English in addition to their native language.

    Also non-arab muslims, who by definition are supposed to able to at least read classical Arabic. How many really can, and how far this equates to actually being able to hold a conversation in modern Arabic, might be open to question.

    In fact I just asked my colleague at the next desk, who is fluent in Turkish and German and speaks quite good English, about his Arabic and the answer was an embarrassed laugh. But he is a sophisticated city boy from Istanbul whose wife designs gas turbines for a living – so much for stereotypes about the typical muslim family.

  6. Speaking as someone who has travelled fairly widely in China and Europe, I would aver the very basics are just fine: you just need to be seen to be making an effort. In fact, I’d say the latter is better for starting conversations than spouting fluent putongua in downtown Xian 🙂

    Everyone to whom you are likely to sell will be speaking English.

  7. SE,

    “But every other major language, with the exception of (American) English, is alien to the vast majority of {native language} speakers in {whatever country}.”

    That’s the thing that these language proponents never seem to grasp. It’s not so much that Germans and French are good in foreign languages, it’s that they’re good in English.

    And even though I have O level French and can carry a conversation in France, I don’t do website translations – I hire a professional translator. You’re looking at maybe £200-250/day. Much cheaper to have a few people doing that than having every child spending years on it.

  8. And, further to The Stigler’s point, you don’t have to guess at age 10 or 11 exactly which language is going to be most useful to you at 35.

    My cousin is a reasonable polyglot. Speaks most of the Romance languages and three or four others. But she is a wine writer. Most of the wine growing regions have been the same for centuries or speak the languages of one of the traditional wine growing regions (or English).

    If you were looking towards a career in engineering in the 1960s, which language would you have picked? Well, probably, you wouldn’t have had much of a choice, I suspect. French was standard, with a few schools offering Spanish or German. I suspect you would have had to be at one of the most flexible boarding schools to be offered Mandarin.

  9. JamesV

    “Indeed – thanks to translations of said works.”

    Yes, but the likes of JKR Rowling, or Julian Fellowes or Jeremy Clarkson don’t need to speak Mandarin. So complaining that the British population is monoglot is missing the point, UK culture can easily be disseminated widely with 99% of the population only speaking English.

  10. A few years ago I went on holiday with a mixed group of Spanish, German, Irish and British people. Although one of the Brits spoke impeccable German and two of the Irish guys could get by in Spanish I can assure you that everybody spoke English ALL THE TIME because it was the only language we all had in common.

    This is why Norwegians are brilliant at English and English people are crap at languages until they have a pressing need. My sister was rubbish at languages until she fell in love with a Spanish man in her twenties. Now she’s billingual, and my mother, in her sixties, is also learning Spanish so she can speak to her grandchildren and her in-laws. Needs must…

  11. But almost every other major language such as Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese is alien to the vast majority of English speakers in Britain.

    – Doesn’t help that they’ve all got different orthographies, innit.

    – I am learning Arabic. I started because I do a lot of work with the MIddle East. But guess what? 95% of the people I deal with aren’t Arabic. Nor do they speak it. I speak more arabic – and I really don’t speak much beyond hi and how are you – than some people who have lived there for 30 years. You really don’t need to.

    – Is Japanese a majority language? Mandarin, fine; almost 1bn speakers. Arabic, probably, ’bout 300m speakers all told and more if you add non-arab muslims. But Japanese? I’d have gone for Spanish, spoken by around 400m people. Only I reckon loads of people speak a bit of spanish, which would probably ruin their nice argument.

    it is a good point re why French is our second language of choice. It’s not awfully useful, except in France.

  12. Not this load of old cobblers again. If I didn’t live in a Spanish-speaking country, the effort it took me to learn Spanish would have been almost entirely wasted. If you’re an expat, learning the local language to a reasonable degree of fluency immeasurably improves your utility. It’s the single most important step in acculturation. I would say, from personal observation, that satisfaction with quality of life among the foreigners I know here is very strongly correlated with their degree of language acquisition.

    But. But. For most English speakers the opportunity cost of learning a second language is far too high to be justifiable. It is necessary to ask oneself why one is going to the effort. If it’s just an end in itself, then fine, but it’s no different from learning to play the trumpet or juggle.

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