Given that in the UK at any one time you are usually an hour or less flight time to a country which speaks a different language; in parts of Kent you can even see France, it seems odd that the UK has such a poor record in speaking languages. I can understand the difficulty if you live say somewhere in Nebraska or in Alice Springs, but leaving my house now I could be in a foreign country quicker than I could be in Scotland. London is actually closer to Prague than many Scottish islands and closer to Berlin than it is to the Shetland Islands. Yet, when travelling you find most British people have no grasp of a single other language. Contrast this to people you meet from the rest of Western Europe who generally have English in addition to their own language, and often have German or Russian or French too. Many Spanish speak Italian and vice versa; Finns are brought up speaking their own language and Swedish from the start. Of course a lot of British people or their parents or grandparents come from another country and speak languages such as Urdu, Hindi, Cantonese. However, even among such communities it is common within a couple of generations for people to lose knowledge of this kind. There are British people with language skills, but they are seen as eccentric. The British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57) spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi at a time when the British were having difficulties with Egypt (Arabic speaking) and Iran (Farsi speaking), so he could have addressed these people in their own language, understood nationalist radio broadcasts, etc. Yet, he never revealed this ability publicly because he knew it would make him appear suspect in the eyes of the British population.
Why are the bulk of the British so poor at languages? Is it simply a fear of appearing 'suspect'? You see them failing to grasp things or even have a smattering of local languages and we are not talking about ones which are far away such as Arabic or Japanese, but ones that are in close proximity, such as French and German. Some (Anglo-Saxon) Americans can be as bad, but these days more and more of them can speak Spanish at least. Is the British problem that so many people speak English? Apparently 380 million people have it as their first language, and primarily because of US culture, it is dominant across the world in pop music and movies, and so it is usurprising that a fifth of the world's population (about 1.3 billion people) can speak English to some degree or another. So does this simply make us lazy? Is it a hangover of British imperialism? Whilst checking some facts for this post I came across blog entries asking why British school children should bother learning any foreign languages. If at most you have to wait until the fifth person comes along to get someone to speak to you in English, I guess that is a fair argument. However, it is one I will contest, if you give me a moment.
One reason why the British are so poor at languages is that they start late. If you begin before the age of 8, learning any foreign language you will find it far easier to develop that language or pick up another. However, until recently most British schools started no languages until a child turned 11. This has improved. However, if the parents speak no foreign language there is no support for the child's study at home in the way there is with things like English and Mathematics. If you go to a university as I have often done, you will find that many of the students who do well in languages have parents of different nationalities, I have encountered many with one French and one British parent or even one Chilean and one Norwegian in one woman's case. In the latter case she was operating in a third language, English. It is far rarer to find children of British-British parents with any foreign language skill. The situation has deteriorated since the government stopped making any languages compulsory once pupils turned 14; now they are backtracking furiously because recruitment on to language courses at higher levels, even GCSE (the examinations at 16 years old) which is very basic conversation level, were falling sharply.
So British people do not exposed to languages much at school. They do not seem to pick them up elsewhere either. This is despite the fact that the ownership by Britons of homes in France and Spain has reached high levels (250,000 houses in France are now owned by British people). I think this can be explained by the fact that the British form enclaves in which they eat, sleep and speak English. Talking with a British builder's merchant who now runs his business in Bordeaux, he said that there (which unlike regions such as Normandy or the Dordogne is not renowned for having lots of British) he never spoke French as all his customers were either British builders working in the region or British home owners. (As an aside when the British complain about immigrants in the UK they should remember that 1 in 10 of the British population now lives outside the UK; though still not learning the local language).
Another reason why British people do not grasp foreign languages is that there is a real snobbery. In the UK someone will ask you if you speak a language, if you say 'yes' they assume you can speak it perfectly and will get angry if you make any mistakes; even, as is common they know no foreign languages. It is all or nothing for the British in contrast to much of the world, who as someone recently noted, 'get by in bad English' when they do not have a common language. Yet another factor, certainly in contrast with neighbouring countries in Europe, you cannot pick up any foreign television channels in the UK. In contrast many Dutch, Belgians and French write in to programmes shown on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
Yet another reason I have had suggested to me is that 'all the intelligent British people have left the UK'. This argument goes along the lines that with migration to the empire in the 19th and early 20th century and to the Commonwealth and especially to the USA after the Second World War (the so-called 'Brain Drain') and now with middle and upper class people choosing to live abroad (saying which when in Milton Keynes you would encounter people who commuted from Caen in France because with budget airlines the combined flight and coach ride to reach the city was £16 (€23; US$32) compared to £36 (€52; US$72) for the train journey from London), the argument is that those with the intellectual ability to grasp foreign languages have left. They have been replaced by the people with 'get up and go' from South Asia and now Eastern Europe. Certainly, if you look at successful businesses in post-1945 Britain many have been founded by immigrants or first generation settlers.
Why does all of this matter? If the British in the UK are the dim leftovers who rarely travel abroad and when they do go only to British enclaves why do they need foreign languages? It is about more than the language, it is about the mentality and analysis that knowing another language provides. As I age my memory is deteriorating rapidly, so I have forgotten so much of what I learned when younger, but I have been having ago at learning Mandarin Chinese and I have found out interesting things about its sentence structure. Questions are sentences with a question word put at the end. In English we would say 'Are you hungry?' in Mandarin it would work out 'Hungry, are you?'; 'Is it raining?'; 'Raining, is it?' and so on. (Someone said to me today it is speaking like Yoda from the 'Star Wars' movies, and that is the case, because Yoda intentionally is supposed to be a sage and in the West we often see sages as being Oriental, hence such a sentence structure). Now, people say to me, 'Chinese people never ask any questions' and no I know why this appears to be the case. If I asked you 'Are you ready? Do you have any questions?' and you are Chinese you have to track down the actual question word and then make your own question sentence, bringing on board all your vocabulary, but getting it in the backward questioning way that us English speakers like. By the time you have done that the average English speaker has assumed you have no questions and have moved on.
So, my argument is, that until you begin to learn another language, you do not come to understand the other ways in which people of the world structure their thinking. Neither do you know how hard it is to get across what you want to say and the embarrassment of getting it wrong. Someone who bellows all the time in English is never going to appreciate such perspectives. It allows them to make sweeping judgements about other people's attitudes and so they see hostility rather than co-operation. Individuals do not notice that the best jobs are now going to educated people from continental Europe who speak two or three languages and British society, increasingly uneasy with dealing with the rest of the EU let alone markets in China and elsewhere, is shutting itself off from both intellectual and financial benefits.