Monday, 5 March 2012

When Knowing A Foreign Language Is Something To Be Ashamed Of

I think I have been rather beaten to this posting by Will Hutton writing in ‘The Guardian’:  However, I guess there is no harm in me adding my perspective too.  As with Hutton, my thoughts were triggered by the fact that the two leading men aiming to be nominated to be the Republican candidate for the coming US Presidential elections, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were attacking each other on the simple basis of whether they spoke French or not.  As the BBC noted last month, they probably both do:  Romney spent 30 months in Bordeaux and Paris as a Mormon missionary in the 1960s whilst Gingrich wrote a PhD on Belgian educational policy in the Congo 1945-60 and cites a number of French-language texts in the bibliography; he might not be able to speak French but we have to assume that he reads it.  I guess Gingrich is also ‘Dr. Newt Gingrich’ something else he is keeping quiet.  Gingrich has produced an advertisement which refers to Romney’s ability to speak French.  The reason for such an attack comes from what Republican politicians associate with Europe – the euro and all its difficulties; a strong welfare budget and an unwillingness to engage in futile military conflicts.  Like most Britons they do not seem to associate Britain with Europe.

It seems incredible that there is more to gain politically from disguising that you have intellectual skills and that the grasp of a foreign language is something to use as an insult to your opponent or at least something which you feel the electorate should be dubious about.  However, it is probably worth noting that both former President George Bush Jr. (2001-9) and his father’s Vice-President Dan Quayle (1989-93) both demonstrated difficulties with English and yet seemed sufficiently popular.  In Britain, Nick Clegg when he became deputy prime minister was viewed suspiciously by Conservatives less for his political views and more for the fact that his wife is Spanish, his mother Dutch, his father half-Russian and he speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish; his children are English-Spanish bilingual.  In a continental politician such abilities would be commended or at worst seen as normal.  However, in the UK, as in the USA, learning can be seen as an electoral liability which is why I never saw reference to Dr. Gordon Brown or Dr. Mo Mowlem even though that was in fact the case.
  This is in sharp contrast to countries like Germany or many states in the Arab World.

Ironically Clegg is very much like the nobility and royal families of Europe of the 19th century.  Queen Victoria (actual first name Alexandrina), born to a German family, married to a German prince, had children who married into the different royal families of Europe including those of Germany and Russia.  Victoria spoke German with her children and presumably her husband too.  At the time upper class people across Europe spoke French to the extent that you often cannot find copies of treaties Britain was party to actually in English (I have looked) as French was spoken so widely among the civil service and I imagine the entire diplomatic corps. Of course, there has always been one rule for the rich and another for the rest.  Whilst the wealthy of the UK including many members of the Conservative Party may look in disdain at our European neighbours let alone nationalities further afield and voice this attitude, this does not actually stop them from taking expensive holidays in exotic countries and mixing with the 'right sort' of foreigner; wealth is a language all of its own.
  I do not know when the attitude shifted, but to me it seems it came during the First World War as Britain looked on both its opponents and its allies with disdain and focused on things that looked 'unBritish'; even the royal family was compelled to drop the surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of Windsor.   Throughout the 20th century foreigners seem to have lost the sense of being worthy rivals to being people who should at best be patronised and at worst attacked.  Perhaps it was the fact that Sir Anthony Eden, foreign secretary (1935-8; 1940-5; 1951-5) and prime minister (1955-7) did not reveal that he had a degree in Farsi (spoken in Iran) and Arabic and could speak reasonably good French in the documentary film, 'Le Chagrin et la Pitié' (1969) though he switches to English towards the end.  I always note that Eden could have understood the broadcasts in Arabic by his great antagonist Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser without a translator.  The fact that Eden had this knowledge yet it was effectively concealed probably shows the stage that knowing a foreign language in Britain was no longer seen as beneficial but suspicious

I would argue that the criticism of people for having language skills is part of a broader anti-intellectualism that has been common in the UK since the 1970s and probably quite a bit longer.  It is interesting that the website of the ‘Daily Mail’ has now just overtaken the ‘New York Times’ as the most often accessed English-language news site.  The ‘Daily Mail’ is clearly nationalistic, anti-European Integration and generally right-wing.  It tends to focus on glamour rather than intellectual issues and presents solutions to most of the world’s problems as based on getting foreigners to listen to British common sense.  Hutton takes a more specific focus in his seeking for an answer.

Hutton notes that there has been a fall of 21% in students applying for university degree courses in non-European languages, exceeding the general fall of around 9% in all university applications, despite the fact that having such skills makes graduates highly employable.  Part of the difficulty is the fall in the feed-through of students who speak any foreign languages, as only 43% of even GSCE level students study any language.  At ‘A’ level in 2011 only just over 13,000 students took French down 5% from 2010; 7,600 took Spanish; 5,100 took German a fall of 7%; Chinese was taken by 3,100; Polish by 458 and Irish by 339.  A key reason for not studying a language at university is that language degrees last 4 rather than 3 years so accruing more fees, though as with sandwich courses with industrial placements the fees may be reduced when the student is away from their home campus.

Hutton quotes translator Michael Hofmann who argues that only speaking one language traps you in a ‘cultural cage’ only able to perceive one position on issues.  Consequently he sees an advantage in terms of getting employment not simply through being able to talk to people from a different country but because you develop a flexibility of mind which allows you to adapt to different circumstances even if that is shifting from one company to another simply within the UK.  Hutton thinks that the lack of affinity for language learning stems from seeing foreigners as ‘invaders’, indeed some kind of benefit pillagers.  Whilst we like the fact that English is so widely spoken in the world (but still by fewer people that Mandarin Chinese) we do not like the fact that it makes it easier for them to come to the UK to work or claim benefits.  In addition, most British are not interested in going out to countries to assist in strengthening their economies to make even recession hit UK look less attractive.  While we may not have shaken off the sense of imperial superiority we certainly have lost any sense of a patrician approach which once was an element of British colonialism. 

Hutton feels the sense that foreigners are a threat is why those studying languages are so often ridiculed in the UK as if daring to learn the alien’s language makes you a source of suspicion, much as we see it doing in the USA.  Putting in effort to learn a foreign language, apparently shows that you are focusing on the wrong priorities because you are putting at least some emphasis on a different culture from your own and somehow that wanting to know more about another culture suggests you lack pride in your own.  As Hutton notes this cultural censuring of language learning runs counter to the best interests of those people choosing what subjects to study.  I had a friend who learnt Korean.  He seems to have been the first person ever to complete a Linguaphone course in that language as he noticed that tapes 3 and 4 in the set (this predated CDs let alone downloads) that he had bought were identical.  The company had recorded tape 4 but had been dispatching the wrong one in its place.  Anyway, he was so in demand that when travelling on public transport anyone in the UK or South Korea found he spoke Korean they would offer him a job.  Anyone who speaks fluent English and can get a decent grasp of Mandarin or Arabic or Russian or even Portuguese is liable to be in high demand and yet young people cannot see that. 

Weirdly the basic Chinese course from the Open University available on ITunesU is one of the top 3 downloaded courses but no-one seems to go beyond lesson one.  Perhaps as I have argued before the British have no language ability: so the fall in students taking them suggests that they have stopped trying to learn the languages and humiliating themselves.  I have forgotten all the foreign languages I ever learnt and as it was only got 10% in my Chinese test after 18 months study.  However, I am not going to ridicule anyone who learns a foreign language or see them suspiciously.  It seems ironic that those who are so much more nationalistic than me are so hostile to language learning not realising that if you are ignorant of someone else's language and yet they know yours, it is you who is at a disadvantage.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

I was fascinated to stumble across a page on Wikipedia entitled 'List of multilingual Presidents' which details all the languages that US Presidents have spoken:

All of those elected in the 18th and 19th centuries, except Martin Van Buren, could read and write Latin and Ancient Greek and some even spoke Latin. Martin Van Buren, the President 1837-41, was the only President not having English as his first language as he was brought up speaking Dutch.

It is apparent that skills in any foreign language among US Presidents declined through the 20th century to reach an all-time low in the 21st century.