The laid-back life of the English speaker

Business trip to Asia? Of course, they’ll have someone there who speaks English. Holiday in Europe? Well, they all learn English at school, don’t they? And all the signs will be in English. And even if they don’t want to speak English, at least they’ll understand… I say, does anyone here speak English?

This must be the way we think. How else could we explain the fact that 85-90% of people living in New Zealand can communicate in one or more of our official languages, but nothing else? Also, if you look more closely at the census results for 2006, you can reasonably assume that a high proportion of those who do speak a foreign language do so because they brought it with them as migrants; not many Kiwis will have learnt Hindi or Hungarian at school.

It would be interesting to know how many native-born New Zealanders or Anglo-Saxon migrants have some mastery of another tongue. The number is likely to be pretty low, and incredibly low compared to figures for non-English-speaking OECD countries.

Nor are things likely to change in the near future. In 2006, only 23% of students taking NCEA at Level Three included a foreign language in their options. In most developed countries, that figure would be 100%; in fact, you wouldn’t be able to secure university entry without a satisfactory result in a foreign language.

New Zealanders are not alone in their lethargy. People are pretty much the same in the other English-speaking countries. The UK has invested vast amounts of money in foreign language teaching over the decades, but the result is still a largely monolingual society.

It’s not hard to see why English speakers are linguistically lazy. The reality is that many of the assumptions we make about other people’s ability to speak English are often correct. Yes, someone here probably does speak English. And even if we do make an effort, their English usually seems so much better than our French or Japanese or whatever that you wonder why you bother. English is the language of travel, of the Internet, of business meetings, in short, the international language.

So why worry? There are many reasons, perhaps three main ones.

The first is simply one of equity. English has become the international language through a combination of historical circumstances, not because it is inherently easier than other languages, still less because it is in some way better than the others. Learning another language is not an easy business, and the people we meet at home or abroad who have mastered English did not do so overnight. In many cases, they will have devoted hundreds of hours of study, and possibly large amounts of money, to get where they are. Isn’t it just a little arrogant, then, simply to expect that they should have done this? And while we take their efforts for granted, we think we’re doing well and deserving of praise if we’ve learnt to say “bonjour”!

The second reason is economic. All other things being equal, will the Chinese trader prefer to negotiate with the monolingual Anglophone or the foreigner who has made the effort to speak the language and become familiar with the culture? Which of the two has the better understanding of the way things work in China? Who gets the deal?

The third reason is cultural. Learning a foreign language opens up a new way of thinking. Languages are not just different words for the same ideas; in many cases, they encapsulate new ideas, or new ways of looking at old ones. Language is a key component of culture, and an appreciation of different cultures is fundamental to understanding the world we live in. You also realise that the way we express concepts in English is just one of many possible ways. In fact, you really begin to understand your own language only when you start comparing it with others.

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If learning a language helps you to learn more from other countries, maybe we should look at how others approach the learning of languages.

In most European countries, for example, school students not only have to take a language, they also have to achieve a certain standard in that language. If they don’t, they can’t proceed to the next class. The idea of doing a language for a few years and then dropping it if you don’t like it is quite alien. Interestingly, the aim is not to produce a huge number of graduates in foreign languages – they simply wouldn’t get jobs. Instead, mastery of another language is regarded as a standard adjunct to other skills. At university, you may study law or computing or physics: your foreign language skills were acquired at school, and are largely taken for granted.

Clearly, in a country like New Zealand, our circumstances are not entirely the same as those, say, of Sweden. First of all, we can’t identify one language that we absolutely must learn: we might study Japanese only to end up working for a company that does business exclusively in China. Then we can’t pretend that we depend for our very survival on mastery of another language – much of the world is learning English, and that fact is unlikely to change.

But that does not mean that New Zealanders should continue to be largely monolingual.

First of all, there is a strong case for as many school students as possible to have an experience of learning a foreign language. Every one of them will interact with many people who have learnt English as a second language, probably on a daily basis. They need to understand what it’s like to learn another language, and should also have enough understanding of their own language to help the people they are speaking to.

On the other hand, there is little point in requiring all school students in English-speaking countries to take a language throughout their school careers. This has been tried, for example, in the UK, and the results were hardly an unqualified success. At lower levels, learning a language can be fun. However, it’s pretty hard to sustain the fun for years if there is no real obligation to achieve. And there probably comes a point when you also need to apply mental discipline: you have to work hard to fit things together and to exercise powers of memory to learn the vocabulary. This is a very valuable exercise, but realistically it is not for everyone.

What we really need to do is to look at ways of encouraging language study up to university entrance, and at raising the levels of achievement. The idea of a German doctor not being able to speak English is quite odd. Why don’t Kiwi doctors speak German? Or Japanese, or Arabic? We don’t know which language people are going to need later on, but once you have mastered one, you will find it much easier to learn another, even if it is unrelated. In essence, you acquire a feel for language, and that is what we need to be teaching.


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