It's not our fault we only speak English

8th July 2005 at 01:00
I am not in the least surprised that, as The TES reported last week, some children are now studying foreign languages for only a month of their school lives. Secondary school pupils do not want to learn French or German, and there is no point compelling them to do so.

To the average child of 12, 13 or 14, these languages are as irrelevant as Latin. English, or at least the American version of it, saturates the culture of almost every country on the planet. English children do not watch French films, click on to French websites or hum French pop songs. In this, they are like most children in the world, possibly including French children. It just so happens that the main language of all these media is the English child's native tongue.

"Little England expects everyone to speak English," said the TES headline.

Little England is right: almost everyone does. Danish children spend five hours a week studying English because almost nobody outside Denmark speaks their language. It is hard to give our children a similar spur, and the same applies to Americans and Australians, who do not learn foreign languages either. Idealists dream of a world language. We have one.

Indeed, there has always been a world language, in the sense of one that dominates international culture and is spoken by the elite in most countries. In the Middle Ages, it was Latin; in the 18th and 19th centuries, French; now it is English. Its dominance is greater than its predecessors' because it has become the medium of popular as well as elite culture.

The cultural gatekeepers are English-speaking Americans. Writers in minority languages find it hard to get published internationally; film-makers from small countries have problems getting distributed. The Radio Times lists 14 channels devoted to film, plus the offerings of the BBC, ITV, and so on.

On an average day, you will find no more than two or three films produced outside the English-speaking world. When an Albanian wins an international fiction prize, nobody has heard of him and even the Guardian jokes about it. More than 90 per cent of websites are in English - put your website in another language and too few will be interested. Even pop stars know they do best if they sing in English.

All this may be deplorable. World culture is impoverished; talented artists who use the wrong language are excluded from a wider audience. We may soon reach the point when nobody learns a language other than English because nothing important or interesting is said or written in any other language.

But we should not berate our children for insularity, nor expect schools to do the impossible, and persuade them of the benefits of learning a foreign language.

People learn languages when they need to. Millions in poor countries eagerly learn English: it is a passport to jobs; a tool for building a new life in Britain, America or Australia; possibly a qualification for studying at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale. Even the British will sometimes learn a foreign language when they live and work overseas.

And that is the secret of it. It is no use people such as Denis MacShane, the former minister for Europe, huffing and puffing about languages being "a necessary discipline". If he thinks they are that important, he should demand their restoration as requirements for university entry, and perhaps even as requirements for entry to the civil service. Otherwise, we have to accept that monolingualism is the price our children pay for being native English speakers.

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