I have been fascinated by foreign languages ever since I heard the indecipherable chattering of locals and other tourists alike during an early childhood holiday to Spain. However, despite my then wide-eyed wonderment, it is clear that, as a country, we have given up trying to speak to foreigners in their mother tongues.
Like many things, Britain’s problem with foreign languages begins in childhood. Learning a language is like building a bridge. Only now, ten years after plans for the Queensferry Crossing were first submitted, are we able to drive across it. Mastering a language is much the same; many years are spent learning vocabulary and grammar rules before one is able to cross the language divide.
I began learning French and Spanish when I made my transition to secondary school, where foreign language classes were not a particularly enjoyable experience. Aside from the buffoonery involved when a band of puerile teenagers encounters an individual with a foreign accent, there quickly spreads a perception that learning a foreign language is more trouble than it's worth. Indeed, why would a class of self-respecting 16-year-old choose to memorise the conjugation of Être and Avoir and try to get their heads round the subjunctive when, across the hall, they can experiment with Bunsen burners and dissect dead frogs? Such activities furnish instant gratification whereas learning a language requires many years of grammatical elbow grease before there is any hope of being able to sustain a conversation in the target language.
This is, I believe, why we have just seen a 59 per cent drop in the number of Scottish secondary school pupils studying modern languages. It’s not just a problem north of the border; the proportion of UK secondary school pupils studying two or more languages recently fell to well below 10 per cent. As a result, the UK now has the second worst record in the European Union for learning languages.
Our reluctance to learn foreign languages is not going unnoticed. During a year-long period of study in Belgium and Spain I dutifully set about speaking to my fellow students in their native language but was astounded when they responded in English as soon as they discovered I was from the UK. Of course, this may be due, in part, to my not yet fully developed accent. However, there is, without doubt, a perception in Europe that Brits simply don’t do foreign languages.
Our lackadaisical approach towards the languages of our closest neighbours is also evident in our attitude towards the European Union. Just as Brits decline to open their horizons to new languages, the UK has, over the course of the last 44 years, also declined to fully embrace the European project. Successive governments have found it much more palatable to pursue a half-in, half-out arrangement with the EU, made possible through the negotiation of opt-outs from key legislation and treaties. It is tempting to wonder whether the country would have voted for Brexit had the UK espoused the European project and all that comes with it, including the learning of other languages.
Indeed, Britain’s attitude is neatly illustrated by the Brexit Secretary, David Davis. Mr Davis, whilst in Brussels negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, is forced to rely on his translation earpiece in order to grasp the remarks being made by his counterpart, Michel Barnier. Monsieur Barnier is, on the other hand, able to switch seamlessly between French and English in a way that no one in the British Government (except perhaps Boris) is able to do.
Britain and its institutions have undoubtedly benefited from the current world order; the dominance of the English language has placed London at the heart of global commerce, politics and culture. However, an increasingly globalised world in which English gradually loses its supremacy may require Britain to bear in mind the words of Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.
Philip completed an internship with us this summer. He recently graduated with a first class degree in French, Spanish and European Union Studies from the University of Edinburgh and is pursuing a career in journalism.