Foreign Languages

Anglophone privilege, or handicap, and the world-opening effect of bilingualism

By Anna Lockwood

Globalisation has fundamentally changed the place of foreign languages in our lives forever. But what does this mean for British people who place as the worst in Europe at learning foreign languages? The reason is relatively simple: for brits who wish to work and spend their lives on this island, foreign languages carry no utility. But could the consequences run deeper? The disappearance of welsh is a dire shame to say the least and a very real danger to some. This relates to the argument I want to make in this post that languages are not just valuable for their utility but valuable in themselves.

English is without doubt the language of business and global affairs. This fact motivates millions each year to improve their English in pursuit of career goals and internationalism. Meanwhile, the reasons for monolinguals to pick up another language are numerous. Foreign languages are inherently linked with an interest in global affairs- they create international bonds and require and promote connection and empathy with other national identities.

Through language we express our relationship with the world around us. The amazing ability of humans to express thoughts with such detail in such a diverse number of ways is inherently linked to our equally incredible ability to form bonds with one another. It is essentially what makes us human.

The privilege of having English as a native language is clear. Many of us manage to travel and live without knowing a second language, but this comes at both an internal and external price. We lose the gift multilingualism could have given us, and externally, our human relations are damaged by arrogantly expecting the rest of mankind to communicate in a way that benefits us the most. The linguistic sacrifice is always on the other side, and because language is such a big part of who we are, what we really do is say, who I am is more important than who you are, and what I have to say is more important than what you have to say.

I have become convinced that a dangerous assumption exists in Anglophone countries that languages are ‘just not for us’. That we are wired to be terrible at languages, cast forever into the corner of the classroom to be unfairly hounded by an aggressive German teacher who continuously overestimates, over-commands, and just doesn’t understand that language is not for us. I would like to argue that this position is not just unfortunate or lazy but fundamentally detrimental.

So why are we so bad at languages? As someone who overcame this, I believe I know the answer. We treat foreign language as just another subject. A category of information to be banged into your head word by word until you can temporarily reproduce it on paper. But language is not a category and when treated as such this is the result you have- a nation of people that hesitantly stammer bonjour un café s’il-vous-plaît on command. Your second language does not exist inside a box inside your life but runs parallel and in complete correspondence to your life. Your life can equally be expressed in your second language as in your first, and this is an amazing thing to realise. They say there have been cases where brain damage has caused people to completely lose their first language but remembered their second fully. When pursuing a second language seriously, it is essential that you treat this kind of rarity as likely. In the later stages of learning a language it is not about how much of it you speak, but how little of your first language you speak. I would now like to address any young people considering a linguistic year abroad. I cannot convey how useless moving abroad can be for language learning if you continue to use English. If you truly want to learn Spanish, find a job where you are forced to speak Spanish, set all your devices into Spanish including Netflix, make Spanish-speaking friends, surround yourself with Spanish-speaking people. Temporarily cut English out of your life as much as you can.

Of course, moving abroad is not an option for many, but what I’d like to argue is that having a minimum awareness and respect for other languages is deeply intertwined with gaining an interest and understanding for other cultures. The problems that Wales faces in struggling to keep alive its native language, encouraging its youth to branch out to foreign languages, and promoting a deep-set curiosity in global affairs are essentially the same problem that needs to be addressed collectively.

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