In the 1977 I remember hearing an interview on RTE (Irish radio) with Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, the former President of Ireland. He told the story of how, when on an official visit to China, he had indicated to his Chinese hosts that, on the occasion of a planned dinner in his honour in Beijing, he wished to speak in Irish. He offered to provide an English translation in advance, but was told politely by the Chinese that this would not be necessary, as they would have their own Irish language experts present at the event. Ó Dálaigh mused that if it had been the other way round, and a Chinese dignitary coming to Ireland had decided to speak in Chinese, there would have been no one in Ireland to provide a translation.
Of course that is different now, to the extent that we certainly have some people here who can speak, and translate from, Mandarin Chinese. However, I suspect that most of them would be Chinese by birth. I recently heard an English TV journalist ask a 12 year old boy somewhere in provincial China whether he had read any English books. Yes, the boy responded modestly, all of the novels of Charles Dickens, in English. I very much doubt that there are many 12 year olds in Ireland or England who could make the same claim, and certainly none who will have read any serious amount of literature in Chinese.
In the era of the internet and globalisation, we now have much more direct connections with other people from other cultures all over the world. But far from prompting much greater proficiency in other languages, this global neighbourhood seems to conduct its business almost entirely in English.When I was myself in China quite recently, I was a guest at a major ceremony in a Beijing university, and sat next to a young Chinese student who had never been outside China but who spoke English totally fluently and almost without any trace of an accent. He was quite surprised when I suggested to him that Mandarin Chinese would become a very influential language internationally; maybe, he suggested, but then again, perhaps not in China. He told me that it was the view of many of his generation, or at least those of them living in Chinese cities, that English would be their main language of work and possibly even of leisure. On another recent occasion in Germany I found that the German students I was meeting were surprisingly unappreciative of my speaking in German to them – they wanted to talk to me in English. And again, I have just come across some promotional literature issued by a Dutch and a German university emphasising that all their courses were offered through English.
The spread of English probably owes much to the internet. It has created a view amongst some English speakers that learning other languages is a waste of time, and so for the past decade or so language courses in some universities have struggled to attract students. In 2010, even with the surge of additional student applications to the universities, the points required to study French at one Dublin university are considerably lower than they were ten years ago.
This trend is not good for us. It is true that English allows us to get by in business almost anywhere in the world, but without learning the languages of the countries with whom we want to develop relationships we will have an incomplete and insufficient understanding of their cultures. It is of course great that so many people come to Ireland to learn English, but we should also become much more serious about learning their languages. We are right to stress that Ireland is an English-speaking country and therefore an ideal place to conduct international business, but we should also want to be seen as a country that welcomes and understands other cultures.