Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Eh? I no parley da lingo?

Why are the British so utterly resistant to learning other languages? For a nation which spent several hundred years invading other countries, it seems a little backwards, to say the least. Obviously there are patches of linguistic variety - all Welsh kids learn Welsh and the number using it as a first language is slowly increasing, after centuries of the language being outlawed - but on the whole, Brits seem to assume that foreigners think in English really and use their own languages simply to annoy tourists. I knew a man who did business in Sweden frequently, and took it as a personal affront that he needed to hire a Swedish speaker.

I wasn't particularly good at French at school, but picked up enough for an A-level, and improved loads afterwards by living with French people (I can curse in fluent Lyonnaise now) and gradually picked up passable German and reading standard Welsh and each one has widened my world, so I'm heartbroken that British children are no longer equipped to cope in other countries. Since schools were allowed to drop languages, universities have followed (including, shamefully, The Hegemon, where English is the second language to slick management bullshit). The result is a nation which knows less, cares less and understands less about the rest of the world. Languages shape philosophies and worldviews (weltanschauang in German): they aren't just neutral vehicles for the same kinds of thoughts.

For instance: all the interesting new approaches in literary theory in the last 50 years have come from France and Germany. Monoglot anglophones English-speaking academics are disadvantaged and insular: reader-response, poststructuralism, or Foucault's approach took years to catch on in anglophone countries because virtually no-one had the skills to read them in the original. Translations take years to appear and are never satisfactory, as anyone who's tried to explain Derridean difference/différance in English will tell you.

Part of the problem is the way languages were taught. Until I acquired a countercultural hippy French teacher, lessons were about the most superficial things: how to order a drink or find the way to the beach. Nobody told us about French food culture, history, film or any of the other things that makes that country so singular. Anyone who made an effort to get the accent right was beaten up for being gay, and so, endlessly, on. German was out of the question - nothing but Nazis. No mention would be made of Brecht, Schiller, Marx, Mozart, Tristan and Isolde plus all those scientists. In short: nobody told us that other countries had rich, fascinating, different cultures which we might actually like to experience, perhaps immerse ourselves in or even move to. Instead, it was all about consumption, holidays and war. No wonder languages are dead in this country. The other problem was grammar. Nobody explained this concept to us in relation to English, so encountering it in other languages was a hell of a mountain to climb.

Some links for you:
France 24: the equivalent of BBC World. Also available in English.
Deutsche Welle - German global broadcasting. English version.
FIP - one of the greatest radio stations in the world, in French.
BBC Newyddion yn Cymraeg - the news, in Welsh.
TG4 - the Irish language TV station. Notorious, you may be interested to know, for only employing classically beautiful women. Now there's a language policy! South Park in Irish is particularly good.
WWiTV: collecting the world's TV stations online. Go mad! Try some!

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