Last week I interpreted for a young man whose cousin did not believe that I was English, given my level of Portuguese. This happens more than you might expect, and I believe it has more to do with my nationality than my expertise in the language. Now, I do not deny that I do speak both Spanish and Portuguese to nearly a native level (if this weren’t the case, then I would be in the wrong job!). However, their disbelief tends to principally lie in the fact that they do not believe an English person, with English parents, to be capable of learning, or more importantly willing to learn, another language to such a standard.
Whilst this is a lovely compliment on the one hand, it also serves as a constant reminder of what I find to be one of the most frustrating characteristics of the British and English speakers in general. To drive this home, when I returned to my flat that day I happened upon an article in The Guardian on exactly the same subject. Learning another language is much more than just words. It is, as Will Hutton expresses, a willingness to open oneself up to another culture and to learn about and embrace these differences. Or reject them, but to be able to step outside the insular view of one’s own culture and see the world from someone else’s point of view.
I live in London, which is an incredibly multicultural society, yet us British are letting the side down. I frequently meet people who can speak, to differing levels of ability, three or four different languages (they are never the English amongst us, if you take out my friends and colleagues in the translating world). I am not saying that everyone should become linguistic experts, but taking an interest in another language, and learning it to some degree of conversational competence can only be a positive thing. In my opinion, it is not just a question of attitude, but a question of survival in a global world.
If more people invested time in learning languages I believe we could also make this world a more agreeable place to live. By learning about the languages and cultures of others we can learn to be more tolerant and understanding, and can also be more analytical of the world that surrounds us, as we have a more varied experience base from which to draw.
What is even worse is that we seem to be moving backward. Since I left school, the previous Labour Government abolished compulsory modern foreign language GCSEs, which has led to a drastic decline in the number of school attendees taking foreign languages. When I graduated from the University of Birmingham after my first degree, I did some work experience in a local school for a month. For me it was really disheartening to receive the negativity that emanated from the school classroom as regards languages. They were viewed as useless – everyone speaks English anyway, and why would I want to go anywhere they didn’t? (however, as cited in Michael Hofmann’s article, 75% of the world population speaks no English at all).
I have always loved studying languages, and have plans to learn more. I believe that the values of learning other languages are immense – you have other cultures opened up to you, completely different ways of thinking, of expressing yourself – it really enriches your life. People who think that that makes it just an extra are wrong. These skills are highly adaptable and therefore highly appropriate for the workplace, whether you want the languages themselves to form a central part of your role or not.
I sincerely hope that there is a way to reverse this trend. I see some glimmers of hope in the students that I tutor, their dedication and the joy they get out of learning languages. Now becoming a linguist and how to progress in a career as such is another issue – then you are lacking a specialism aside! But that is another issue, one I am currently debating in my head and deciding how to move forward. You never stop learning in this life!