Could Mandarin be set to take over from English as the world's lingua franca? (photo: flickr/makzhou)

Why should the British bother with languages?

Although the spread of English has brought a plethora of benefits and advantages to the UK, the perceived superiority of the language (at least to the native speakers, anyway) appears to be leading to state of linguistic torpor amongst the younger generations. The UK has become the paradigm of the monolingual euro-state, with a reluctance to learn other languages sitting at the heart of its detachment from the multilingual mainland.

Statistics from the European Survey on Language Competences by the European Commission show that only 9% of 14-15 year olds studying French can speak the language independently. For German the figure is even lower – 6%. When you compare this figure with the European average (42%) the lack of foreign language skill we as a nation possess becomes starkly apparent.

These abysmal figures are both indicative of our culture and of the spread of English as a useful language. According to the EC, in 19 of the 25 member states where English is not the official language, it is still the most widely spoken “foreign” tongue. However, as indicated by the EC figures, despite the world’s willingness to learn our language, the English-speaking world simply refuses to return the favour, the majority remaining staunch monoglots, loudly protesting their right to be spoken to in English, no matter where they may be.

Of course, to decry just the British speakers of English would be fallacious, and it is worth remembering that there are many varieties of English throughout the world, including different varieties of English like Pidgins and Creoles, which have developed thanks to the spread of the language through repeated efforts at building an empire.

The most obvious example of the legacy of colonialism is America, a country that through its wealth and influence in the last century, as well as being the centre of most of the media industries, has arguably done more to place English in first place on the world stage than the efforts of the British. However, disregarding how it came to be so prominent, there is no doubting that the position of English is unassailable, simultaneously pre-eminent in science, politics and business and entertainment, being a lingua franca on a truly worldwide scale.

It’s worth remembering that thanks to the sheer variety of English itself, there are massive differences between the ways even different English speaking nations are perceived by other nations.

A 2002 Expedia study revealed that whilst British people are seen as the world’s worst tourists, Americans are seen as the second-best, surprisingly making the third highest effort to learn at least a little of the local language, as opposed to the British, who think the way around a language barrier is simply to speak more loudly and slowly. Our nation seems to have the fairly contradictory view that whilst visitors to our country should learn English, learning the language of any nation we visit is an odious and unnecessary task.

Learning French in Britain is about as useful as learning to play the piano

The attitude amongst younger generations appears to be one of apathy, with Leia Clifton, a university student, quoted as saying “learning French in Britain is about as useful as learning to play the piano.” Since the Government made a language GCSE voluntary in 2004, the number of students opting to take one up has fallen by a massive 50%, although these numbers are again slowly on the rise. However, although the British are regularly castigated for failing to learn languages, many Brits fail to see a problem. “It’s not our fault we are native speakers of a lingua franca that is being adopted on a larger scale,” said Sam Rourke, another student.

Although this may be true, can the same be said in the future? David Crystal, the foremost linguist of the modern day, argues English, in a similar fashion to Latin, could decline as a lingua franca due to the varieties constantly evolving and changing. He stipulates that this state of flux could eventually lead to many similar but distinct languages, displacing the prominence of English, as it has become so diverse that the separate stands have become mutually unintelligible, similarly to the development of the Romance languages in modern-day Europe.

Also worth considering is the growing power of emerging economies such as China. Recently the dominance of English in these countries has been challenged by the rise in the power of China. Lee Han Shih, who runs Potato Productions, a Singapore based Media Company, believes that as China’s economic power grows, Mandarin will overtake English as the dominant language, particularly in the east. In the UK, it is predicted to become the second most popular foreign language learned in schools, with Brighton College having recently become the first UK school to make Mandarin a compulsory foreign language.

Something must be done to address the disastrous inability of the British to learn languages, as the changing state of language means that we could find ourselves in the perilous position of being able to communicate with only ourselves.

Surely having a nationwide skill in speaking at least one other language, be it Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic or otherwise, would help to secure our place in a world which in as little as 200 years or so may have a completely different power balance? We otherwise run the risk of becoming an international caricature of a typical tourist, resented worldwide and mocked for our ignorance.

Comments (1)

  • Neither Chinese nor Spanish will ever be the World’s lingua franca. One glance at the demographic situation and every one should realize why. On the contrary: even more English related countries with a raising population are coming up India (will soon be the biggest country on the planet), Nigeria (biggest in Africa), Bangladesh, Pakistan etc.

    But anyway: we do not live anymore in the 20. century when countries and cultures were still highly isolated from each other. English is the Language of the ‘global community’ which is the summary of the urbanization/globalization. This is an ‘own’ new meta culture and the fastest growing in the world.

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