To speak another language isn't just cultured, it's a blow against stupidity
A leading translator argues that if we rely solely on English we'll lose the curiosity that drove Milton and Orwell
o Michael Hofmann
o The Observer, Sunday 15 August 2010
In 2004, the Labour government removed modern languages from the "core curriculum". That must be "core" as in "apple core". For it meant the study of a foreign language is no longer compulsory at schools past age 14. Theoretically, primary schools are supposed to introduce languages instead, but that's like the road sign with the big black arrow pointing one way and the skinny little red arrow going the other. A classic "mixed message", with a brute practical impact and a feeble sign of wouldn't-it-be-nice idealism-on-the-cheap.
So what happened? Schools and schoolchildren ditch languages like there's no tomorrow. Just as we've become adept at finding the shortest and the quickest and the most economical, so we can sniff out anything that's not a doss. "Grammar? Pronunciation? Different alphabet? Spelling? Accents? Umlauts? Ooh, no thanks – don't fancy that." The "fascination of what's difficult" may be Yeats, but it's a long time since it's had much pull as an idea. Modern languages have become, in the awful semi-euphemism "twilight subjects" – you study them on your own, after school's out.
Auf Wiedersehen, Dept, as the witticism goes. (German suffers especially badly. Numbers taking it have halved in seven years.) At 60% of state schools, three-quarters of 14-year-olds are not taking a modern language. Meanwhile, the take-up in primary schools is mysteriously delayed. Language teachers are not so easy to find and, indeed, where would they come from, given that no one's studying languages any more? Employers are becoming unhappy; their science and business and IT agenda has been overplayed.
It turns out that these "redundant" languages can be jolly useful after all; only now it's much easier to find foreign nationals with English than Brits with another language. EU jobs earmarked for Britons are left unfilled because the entrance exams – another "French plot" – are supposed to be taken in a second language; the new foreign secretary duly harrumphs across to Brussels to level the playing field (ie, remove these irritating goalposts) with that mixture of put-upon and self-righteous that we get from our politicians when they ought to be feeling and expressing straightforward shame.
It looks like an education problem, but it's not an education problem. Education is just where things get shunted that society doesn't want to deal with or can't deal with. A dangerous dearth of respect in society? Let them teach it at school (don't ask me how, call it civics). That drearily prevalent, invertedly snobbish contempt for articulacy? More, better English lessons. An insufficiently integrated immigrant population? History. No sense of other people, other cultures, other languages? Go back to teaching the languages.
Education is a field hospital, where the little troops are patched up and turned round and sent back to fight in the great economic war that seems to be all that's left of life. Respect, articulateness and awareness of others are all related and what greater disrespect can there be than not speaking to others in their languages? Not even thinking of it? Not even being embarrassed about not thinking it? Junking the requirement to learn, at 14, just past the age of crayons. How much respect does that bespeak? How much respect does that even allow? How can you hope to understand others while requiring them to speak to you in their English?
On the global political level, think of the blundering, insular, peremptory and oddly irrelevant posture of the Anglo-American powers, how spooked and baffled and disliked they are over so much of the world. Think of the harping on about the "special relationship" – not so much special, as the only one possible for two such done-up wallflowers. Surely, apart from anything else, with more language-learning, there would have been fewer wars over the past decades?
On the individual level, think of the loss of possibility, the preordained narrowness of a life encased in one language, as if you were only ever allowed one, as if it were your skin in which you were born. Or your cage. That's your lot. When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: "We are a language species", he didn't mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play.
There is this strange cluelessness of the English. The country is so rooted, so settled, one thinks it has survived everything others can throw at it, but it won't survive its own wildly irresponsible experiments on itself. The language, so comfortable, so free of rules, so smashed and contracted and knocked into a cocked hat. Who any longer knows the difference between "its" and "it's" or "may" and "might"? Who can spell "potatoes"? Not a greengrocer, that's for sure. Or a vice-president. Let's not even talk about vocabulary. English will become deformed and opaque if those using it haven't studied other languages. Already Browne, Milton, Gibbon, Ruskin, perhaps soon the much-invoked Orwell, are unreachably foreign. It's only the study of other languages that brought them within reach.
The case for learning another language, or having another language, though, is not that you need it to use and understand your own. Nor is it the banal, utilitarian one that it's good to be able to order a beer or a room in another country. It's not the vulgar economic one that it's good to be able to schmooze your takeover target or your foreign boss. It's that you're not making enough of your individual (or collective) human potential if you allow yourself to be enclosed by one language.
The so-called "world language", English, is spoken as a first language by just 7% of the world's inhabitants; 75% of people speak no English. Languages are some of the oldest, deepest, uncanniest, most thoughtful human inventions. A disdain for, or a lack of interest in, all the others does not seem to me to be a civilised or even a tolerable state of affairs.
Foreigners will go on learning English, regardless. The British have an obligation, it seems to me, to reciprocate. Call it what you like – mutuality, courtesy, fair exchange, good practice. Not to do so is in every sense hateful. A self-exemption. A trusting in force and market, where – for once – force and market do not apply. A departure from international polity. A terminal and blazingly wrong conceit.