Posted tagged ‘languages’

Foolish, in anyone’s language

August 1, 2017

The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.


De-Babeling the tower?

September 3, 2013

About five years ago I was on a university trip to China. In the course of the visit I had dinner with an elderly retired Chinese sociology professor, and in the course of the dinner he suggested to me that, within the lifetime of one generation, the main urban spoken language of China would be English. He pointed out that young people were emailing and texting and saying stuff on social networking sites in English, partly driven by the greater ease of writing in English on mobile phones. As it happens on the same trip I was a guest at a Chinese university student show performed entirely in English, with one of the students (who had never been outside China) telling me he had now read every one of the novels of Charles Dickens in the original language. How many UK students would be able to say that?

The fate of languages in an era in which international and intercultural communication is so easy is a subject of potentially interesting debate. As English strengthens its grip on speech and language everywhere, the effects are felt in the academy. In Scotland right now the number of students taking French in secondary schools for their Highers (equivalent of ‘A’ levels or the Leaving Certificate or SATS in the US) is dropping by nearly 10 per cent year on year, and German has become an endangered subject in UK universities. Minority languages are finding it particularly hard to retain a foothold anywhere.

Does this matter? Is it in fact the emergence of much greater international linguistic fellowship in which communication is becoming easier? Or are we losing cultural anchors that could disrupt and impoverish society? Or will languages actually stage a come-back?

The onward march of English is probably unstoppable, and perhaps the vehicle for linguistic cultural expression will in future be a rich regional variety of accents and dialects – which has long been a feature of English in the Celtic nations on these islands. But in the end it would be a pity of the indigenous languages that are often the source of these local enrichments were to be lost as living means of communication, and indeed not least as a means of communicating tradition and culture. How all this should be handled is something universities should address; and to that extent they should not lightly abandon the study of languages, or of any particular languages.

The continuing decline of languages in education

August 30, 2011

Figures released last week on GCSE examination results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland show a continuing decline in the popularity of languages in schools. For the past few years the number of students taking French and German has been in steep decline, and this trend has now also affected Spanish. Perhaps unexpectedly, religious studies is now the most popular of the traditional humanities subjects, followed by history.

What should one make of this? Despite regular warnings that fluency in languages supports international trade and gives a better understanding of global cultures, students are continuing to move away from language learning. This is a trend replicated across much of the English speaking world, while in other countries the learning of English and, to a lesser but growing extent, Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese is becoming more popular.

In a world where English is becoming more entrenched as the language of business this may not seem to matter very much, but considering the complexities of multiculturalism and the importance of understanding and cultural awareness the decline of language learning should be a cause for concern. There is also a need to develop the menu of available languages, notwithstanding the cost.

Taking down the Tower of Babel: languages in retreat?

March 26, 2011

When I was a student, not that many years ago (or so I would argue), it was taken for granted that languages were major tools for success, and language programmes in universities were highly popular. In Ireland, the still rather new membership of what was then the European Economic Community had created a much greater awareness of European languages, and it was widely accepted that language instruction and the development of scholarship in the literature and culture of our EEC neighbours were now vital.

How much this perception has changed is evident when we now see that, in the context of higher education funding cuts in several countries across the world, a frequent response by universities is to discontinue language courses. This is one of the steps being contemplated by Glasgow University in its current difficulties, but it is in no way unique. Across the United States, for example, several universities are scrapping languages (or at least some of them) from their curriculum.

It is sometimes suggested that the cuts are mainly affecting continental European languages, and that Mandarin Chinese in particular is replacing courses in German or Italian. And indeed, English language (and even literature) courses across the non-English speaking world are still thriving, as English remains the lingua franca of global business.

In fact, even if we were to dismiss the significance of languages as communication tools and assume that a command of English is all that matters today (a view I have even heard expressed by a number of Chinese people), languages are a gateway to our understanding of other cultures, which in turn is important for the purposes of political interaction and business and trading links. If we deplore (as we should) the decline of mathematics and science in education, we must take the same view of languages. Thinking of them as less important and therefore targets for cuts in times of financial stress is unlikely to be sensible. But for that to be persuasive to a wider public, political and business leaders need to put more effort into making the case for a much great language proficiency. Doing so is now a matter of urgency.

The language frontier

September 5, 2010

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.

We are what we speak

November 19, 2009

Today I had occasion to visit both a post office and a Garda (police) station. I should maybe add that there was no connection between these two, and that I was at liberty to enter and leave the Garda station by my own free will (in case you were worried). But they did have one thing in common: notices in the Polish language. Well, of course they also had notices in English, and some in Irish; but what struck me was that there were several in Polish.

We don’t yet know whether the influx of Polish (and other central and Eastern European) nationals in the course of the current decade is a temporary demgraphic phenomenon or whether these immigrants will stay for the long term; and if they do, we cannot yet tell how integrated they will become, and therefore to what extent their language needs will be reflected in public notices. But for now there are Polish newspapers, Polish masses in some catholic churches, and Polish notices in my local post office and Garda station.

In fact, how far do we expect languages to go beyond being a tool of communication, to become a cultural anchor for their speakers? In fact, which is more important, communication or culture? And where language is a tool of cultural identity, what does it tell us? My own first language was German, and indeed it was the only language I spoke until I was 7 years old and my family moved to Ireland. I then had to learn English fast, and indeed I became quite fluent in it after about six months. And since then I have, more or less at least, been fully bilingual, though I am more comfortable in English. But those people who have known me for a while and who understand both languages sometimes tell me that I am ‘different’ depending on which language I am speaking; they say I am more precise and less humorous in German. I don’t actually believe this, and I tend to think that people absorb the national stereotypes and simply expect to hear them in the language; but the stereotype may not be objectively true of any particular speaker.

But my point is this: to what extent do we need to identify with a language as a personal point of reference, an indicator of who we are and what we stand for? In my own case, the language I speak most fluently is definitely English, but does it define me? And if it doesn’t, does this open up a gap in my life? In Ireland of course this topic raises the question of whether the decline of Irish as a commonly spoken language has created cultural problems, or whether the localised version of English is able to provide the anchor needed.

Over a year ago I wrote a post for this blog about the spread of English as the global lingua franca.  It seems to me to be clear that whatever may be the shifts in geopolitical power over the coming century, linguistically English will sweep all before it – it is already making inroads even in China. So do we still need to learn anything else? The answer is yes, because we need to understand the culture and personality of those nations with whom we are in contact, even where we can adequately communicate with them in English. And as a country, we need to have the capacity for that understanding beyond the three or four most widely spoken languages in the world. That is why I am alarmed when I hear occasionally that we cannot afford to have university departments in Ireland that specialise in certain minority languages. That is a dangerous approach – the linguistic arrogance in the world of English speakers can be a source of tension and conflict. While we should certainly present ourselves as an English-speaking country (because of the advantages this brings in global trade), we should also make every effort to have centres of excellence, particularly in our universities, that provide us with some knowledge of other cultures and traditions.

For my own part, I think I am going to learn Polish, which is in any case the language of my ancestors.

Speaking in tongues

August 31, 2008

I am writing this blog in my second language – at least chronologically, in that I was born in Germany and had no occasion to speak English until my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. By the time I was 13 I was able to speak, after a fashion, four languages, if you count Latin (which I would).

Learning English was of course a great career move. English had been the international language of politics and business (though not necessarily of diplomacy) for some time. In fact, by the time I was at university those studying with me often rather looked down on those studying languages, as they rather thought that this was a waste of time.

For a short while, there was some speculation that Spanish might displace English as the key international language, based on the influence of people of Latin American origin in the United States. It never happened – many speak Spanish in the US and elsewhere, but it has not taken over from English as the dominant language. 

And now, in the face of growing Chinese influence globally, some have wondered whether Mandarin Chinese may become the new language to know. Maybe, but I know some Chinese people don’t think so. I was recently advised by a Chinese academic that English was also becoming more and more prominent in China, and would soon be the main business language there.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why English has remained so dominant is because of the internet. The origins of the internet are complex, but its initial growth and development was in the United States and in English, and so even when it spread elsewhere it tended to be in English – even in countries where English is hardly spoken at all websites have generally published web pages in English to give access to international readers. English is not just the lingua franca of the internet, it is the dominant medium. There have been suggestions that this trend should be resisted, and that bodies such as the European Union, or maybe some Asians countries, should drive through the development of other linguistic options and ensure that there is at least a more varied diet. Experience tells us that such moves will certainly fail – English, after all, is now the dominant language of the institutions of the EU, having long since displaced French.

And so the perception that you can ‘get by’ in English almost everywhere has seriously affected people’s willingness to study other languages, as universities have found out over recent years.

But how damaging is this? I for one believe that English is indeed likely to spread further as the lingua franca of business, politics and tourism, and there is not much that anybody can do about that. I would not be surprised therefor if demand for university language courses will be affected by that. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to know more about countries we visit and do business with, and this includes insights into culture. This can be supplied by language schools in our universities.

I do not believe that the case for learning languages is a weak one. We should go with the flow of English as the international language, but we should also remind ourselves that successful international relations, at whatever level, require some visible element of mutual respect. Let us hope that there will always be enough people who will want to know more about other cultures, to the benefit of Ireland’s international relations.

Languages – deconstructing the Tower of Babel?

July 22, 2008

As you might have suspected from my name, I am not Irish by birth. In fact, I was born in Germany. I lived there for the first seven years of my life, until we moved to Ireland. When we arrived here I spoke no English at all, but with the help of my father (who had been learning the language, with mixed results) I acquired what I thought was a perfectly idiomatic phrase, ‘I can’t English’. Only six months or so later, I ‘could English’, and from about a year later English became (and has remained) my primary language. But I still speak German reasonably fluently, and can get by in French. But because of the odd sequence of languages that accompanied my childhood, I learnt most of them in a very grammatical way, so that I speak with greater precision (or pedantry, depending on your outlook) than most would. To my regret today, I was never really given the opportunity to learn Irish as a child, but I am intending to fill that gap shortly.

A year or two ago, while on a visit to China, it occurred to me that the time was right to consider learning Mandarin Chinese. All our hosts in Beijing were able to speak to us in English, in some cases with extraordinary ease and elegance of expression. On our side, absolutely nobody had a single word of Chinese (except the one member of my team who actually came from China). It seemed to me to be both ineffective and somehow discourteous that we would expect them to speak English, while we made no effort at all to acquire Chinese.

But this is part of a wider problem. Those of us who speak English have got used to expecting everyone else all over the world to do likewise. We no longer even think about it. And sometimes it seems as if they don’t think about it, either. The great cultural expansion of English continues, threatening all other languages in its wake.

A decade or two ago it was suggested that English might actually be eclipsed by Spanish, courtesy of the growth of Latin America and the migration of Spanish-speaking people into the US. That is all forgotten now. Perhaps one of the major causes of this about-turn was the growth of the internet, with the total hegemony of English there.

But if English does become the world’s lingua franca, what will that mean? Will it be possible to maintain the distinctive cultures of nations and regions, or will everything become standardised along with the language? Well, for a start I doubt that distinctive cultural characteristics will go, regardless of the linguistic issue. After all, Ireland – even with the dominance of English here – has retained and further developed a culture which, in many important respects, is quite different from that of other English-speaking countries, and even our English is full of expressions, words and colloquialisms that separate us from others, including the bigger island across the water. But also, I cannot see other countries just letting their languages go.

Instead, what seems to me to be obvious is that we should pay more (rather than less) attention to the capacity of different languages to give expression to national attributes and aspirations. Even if, say, every German were to be fluent in English by 2020, I still believe that their language of personal and domestic expression will be German. And therefore, to connect fully with someone from Germany will require an understanding of and familiarity with their language. A person wanting to be successful in trading with Germany will need to speak some German, both in order to communicate better and in order to understand the local business culture.

Most universities have found it much harder to attract language students in recent years. But it is still true that languages provide us with important tools of international communication and business. We need to persuade more of our young people that studying languages (and the cultures of the countries from which they come) is a very smart career move. A world that has become smaller and more immediately accessible to everyone is not about to become uniform. As a trading nation, we need to take very seriously the need to speak to the world, not just in one language, but in its many languages.

In many ways, the growth of English across the world is a benefit. But it is not the answer to all questions of communication.