Monday, 1 June 2015

Parlez-vous Brit?

How often do you hear us Brits saying that we're embarr-assed by our ignorance of other languages? Over and over again. And how often do schools and politicians announce plans to improve language skills? Virtually never. Will we ever be a nation of multi-linguists?

There's still a general belief that there's no need to learn other languages because, after all, English is spoken so widely that wherever we go we can usually get by with our mother tongue. Why go to all that effort to learn another language that we probably won't speak very well anyway?

People from other countries, who often speak several languages fluently, are commonly astonished at the British inability to do the same. For one thing, their linguistic versatility makes them more employable while our ignorance makes us less so. And they can readily move to another country in search of a better job or lifestyle.

But language-learning is getting a lower and lower priority in British schools. It's not seen as an essential skill but as something fairly unimportant. And as far as I know, bilingual schools, where pupils have to speak a foreign language while they're in school, don't exist at all.

The language teaching was so bad at my teenage boarding school that after ten years of French lessons (I started at age eight), I failed my French A Level. It was only many years later, after a holiday in Italy, that I got the urge to learn Italian and now know the language quite well. I'm nowhere near fluent though.

I've met quite a few people from abroad who speak several languages perfectly and it pains me that their schools are so much better at the job than ours - contrary to our politicians' claims about the excellence of British schooling.

I would love to go to Italy or Spain or Germany and do the locals the courtesy of conversing in their own language fluently and adeptly, without expecting them to have learnt mine. But that's not going to happen any time soon.

É una situazione molto ridicola, molto assurda.

16 comments:

Grannymar said...

I was bilingual ... once! At school we had to speak Irish, in fact if we failed irish in an exam and got 100% in all the others, we failed the whole exam. Thankfully that has all changed now. I met two girls from Finland who were studying in France when Elly was over there, they spoke six languages easily and the move from one to the other was seamless.

Bijoux said...

It's virtually the same situation here. How many decades have we known that the easiest way to learn a language is to be immersed in it at an early age, yet most public schools still don't offer foreign language until 9th grade.

Whether one ever needs to use a language or not, it is a culturally enriching experience to learn about other people, plus the fact that learning a Latin language can help an English-speaking student in vocabulary, spelling and reading comprehension for years to come.

Nick said...

Grannymar: Yes, many people down south have learnt Irish at school. But then they leave school and quite often forget their Irish altogether! And the two girls from Finland are probably far from unique.

Bijoux: Exactly, foreign languages should be taught from a very early age when they'll be picked up much more easily. Research also shows that speaking two or three languages is mentally stimulating and increases intelligence.

Helen Devries said...

I wish that languages had been on the menu when we were in junior - if not in primary - school. Eleven was too late to start.

The children of cousins in Belgium had no English lessons in school...but have near perfect English picked up from the television since they were small...

Keith Smith said...

I learned from a friend who lives in the northern wastelands of Britain that some schools have dropped French and German in favour of teaching popular Indian languages and Arabic to the pupils. Their reasoning? It will benefit the pupils more as they grow up in a multicultural society.

I was taught Latin at school, and a fat lot of good that has been! I did spend three years in Germany when I was in the Army and I managed to learn the language from the locals. I even acquired a Northern German accent as well! (so I have been told)

susie said...

Same here. In this state they are talking about eliminating the foreign language requirement.

Nick said...

Helen: Good point about TV. If only there was an Italian TV channel in the UK!

Keith: Why either/or? Why not teach French, German AND other useful languages? And being in the Army is a novel way of learning a foreign language!

Susie: Eliminating languages altogether? That's totally mad.

Jay, Sparking Synapse said...

Actually, according to my friend Paola who is an Italian teacher (in Italy, I mean), it's no better there and most Italian students leave school unable to converse in English. It is usually after they leave school that they suddenly realise that unless they want to live and work in Italy their whole lives (where the unemployment problem is horrendous) they will have to get a grip and learn. Even if they do stay in Italy, so many jobs where they meet the public require them to have English for the tourist trade. Most students seem to learn their language skills in their own time, in order to get a job. Some come to England for a year (and fail to learn because there are so many other Italian students here and they fall into the trap of mixing only with other Italians in their free time) and some come here to full-time language schools.

For myself, I strongly believe that language learning in a classroom situation is a terrible way to do it. It's fine for the basics, but there quickly comes a point where you need to converse about subjects which interest you with a native speaker of your chosen language. This is why Skype is such a great resource, and I have no clue why schools don't take advantage of that - they could pair up with a similar school in the chosen country and have students chatting away to their peers in no time!

Jay, Sparking Synapse said...

Keith Smith - I did a year of Latin at school and have found it invaluable! It's extremely useful for learning Italian, and even for English etymology, but also a must for serious entomology and botany, where most scientific names are latin.

Nick said...

Jay: That's interesting that the situation in Italy is much the same, and that many Italians end up learning English under their own steam. You're absolutely right about the shortcomings of classroom tuition. I took Italian classes for several years in Belfast before I realised I wasn't actually improving my Italian. Unfortunately there's no Italian community here to speak of so I'm not able to link up with a native speaker and improve my Italian that way. School-to-school Skyping sounds brilliant and I don't know why schools don't do that. I do admire the way you've picked up so much Italian so quickly, by the way!

CheerfulMonk said...

I agree that school-to-school skyping is brilliant. I'll bet if one tried one could find someone in a country of one's choice who would love to learn English and talk conversationally.

Nick said...

Jean: I did once find an Italian guy to have chats with, but he was so forceful and so fond of his own voice I was lucky to get a few words in. I learnt very little! But you're right, maybe I can track down an Italian speaker somewhere in Belfast.

CheerfulMonk said...

Before we went to France for a year we hired a French young man studying here in the U. S. to converse with us. It was well worth the money.

Nick said...

Jean: A good idea. It must have given you a real headstart when you were settling in in France.

Rummuser said...

Unless you want to be a frog in a well in India, you will need to be fluent in your mother tongue, Hindi and English and if you can manage to add a few more you are among the elite and in demand for more responsible corporate positions. I personally am fluent in my mother tongue, English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and can very comfortably manage with Gujarati. Incidentally I can read and write the first four lanugages too.

Nick said...

Ramana: I'm impressed! It's shameful that millions of people have learnt English, which is a very tricky language, yet so many Brits can't manage something relatively easy like Italian.