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February 22, 2001
2:07 AM   Subscribe

It's easy to get complacent and not learn foreign languages when you speak native English. In the UK, knowledge of foreign languages verges on the comical.
posted by ecvgi (23 comments total)

 
Ahah very funny. Not the article itself which doesn't bring any real news ; it's well known english dudes don't care about other languages , but at a certain line in article they translate the italian word "scusi?" as "get out of my way" while it means "sorry?"

Guess that proves the article is right and something else too. God save us from The Clueless Editor.
posted by elpapacito at 2:35 AM on February 22, 2001


• If you need just one language, there's no shame in learning just one language. If you don't believe me, just ask millions of Chinese or Russian people, for example. There is more than enough beautiful literature in any of a number of languages to keep almost any monolingual busy and happy for a lifetime.

• Learning a language for the sake of commercial advantage, which is a -- perhaps the -- prime reason for acquisition of a secondary language in most places, is no great honor. It's just a financial investment.

With a world full of beautiful languages and literatures, people are learning English because that's where the money is right now. Fifty years from now, non-Chinese people, including Englishmen, will complain (or joke) in Chinese about Chinese people who refuse to learn their languages.
posted by pracowity at 4:37 AM on February 22, 2001


I'm not sure that literature or business are actually the most important things to consider when discussing the apparent inability of English people to learn other languages. Lack of ability to read Don Quixote in the original is not really the problem, and very few people have the inclination or the time to master even one language to the degree necessary to engage properly with its literary culture. *End of massive generalisation*.
My problem with this is sheer embarrassment. It's the image of the English abroad, speaking very loudly and s-l-o-w-l-y. We are so inconsiderate and arrogant in this respect. I'm no exception to this - I can get by in Spanish and in German I can just about manage 'wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof, bitte', and I didn't exactly have a poor education.
On the other hand I may be suffering cultural-imperialist guilt here.
posted by Caffa at 5:03 AM on February 22, 2001


I agree with everything said above. Second languages are not a necessity for the English since most of continental Europe can speak some English. English is the most widely spoken language in Europe, after all.

However, this article does highlight the intolerance of many Englishmen towards people who cannot speak their language. Several of the telephone conversation transcripts describe the telephonists response as sarcastic or note a raised voice. I suspect this would not be the case in more multilingual countries.

The article was a little unfair, though. I mean, Welsh?
posted by MarkC at 5:09 AM on February 22, 2001


Second languages are not a necessity for the English since most of continental Europe can speak some English. English is the most widely spoken language in Europe, after all.

One could make a similar statement about any language, not just English, if one was really determined to find an excuse to not put out the effort to expand their mind a little and experience life through the "lens" of another language and culture.

We all live in our own countries and never venture out of our small, closed communities, anyway, right? What need do we have to communicate with the people from other countries and cultures on this planet? Right?

That was sarcasm, FYI.

BTW, millions of people world-wide, including Russians, Chinese and any other country that you can mention, are avidly studying English.

Is it so much to ask that we, English-speakers come out of the clouds to at least develop a minimal conversational ability in at least one other language??
posted by locombia at 5:38 AM on February 22, 2001


Well, I admit that Welsh might be a minority language in Europe (I don't mean to be offensive by saying that, btw - but it is, and has around 500,000 native speakers - I think?) - but I think they might have had a Welsh speaker in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, capital city of Wales...

posted by Caffa at 5:49 AM on February 22, 2001


It's not about just commercial reasons... and it's not just about "oh, there's no more good English literature, I think I'll learn German" but... well, you're pretty sheltered if you only speak one language, it shows you don't really want to understand other cultures... language expresses a lot about culture, even where you wouldn't expect...
posted by dagnyscott at 5:56 AM on February 22, 2001


Dagny, I think it is possible to understand a great deal about other cultures without learning their native language(s). I can speak only English, does this mean I'm ignorant of all cultures other than my own?

Locombia, I don't believe learning someone's language leads to an understanding of their culture that would be completely impossible to attain otherwise. And I wouldn't equate being able to ask the location of the nearest bank in Swahili with any great "expansion of the mind".

Yes, millions of people worldwide are learning English but this has more to do with English being such a prevalent language in the business world than an urge to read Harry Potter in its original form.
posted by MarkC at 6:38 AM on February 22, 2001


Dagny, I think it is possible to understand a great deal about other cultures without learning their native language(s). I can speak only English, does this mean I'm ignorant of all cultures other than my own?

Locombia, I don't believe learning someone's language leads to an understanding of their culture that would be completely impossible to attain otherwise. And I wouldn't equate being able to ask the location of the nearest bank in Swahili with any great "expansion of the mind".

Yes, millions of people worldwide are learning English but this has more to do with English being such a prevalent language in the business world than an urge to read Harry Potter in its original form.
posted by MarkC at 6:38 AM on February 22, 2001


I think it probably has as much to do with the dominance of English-speaking culture (c.f. 'The Internet') as it does with business, actually. But I don't see any fundamental difference of opinion here...
posted by Caffa at 7:17 AM on February 22, 2001


I can speak only English, does this mean I'm ignorant of all cultures other than my own?

At some level, yes. It means the only way you can access that culture is though English.

Come on, you have to admit that anyone making the "I-only-need-English" argument is going to ending up looking like a chauvinistic ignoramus at the end of the day, no matter what arguments one comes up with. :-)
posted by locombia at 7:18 AM on February 22, 2001


MarkC, there is a qualitative boost in understanding that you get from learning another language. Traveling through Indonesia, I think knowing a elementary core of Bahasa Indonesia helped me understand the culture in ways I couldn't have if I'd gotten by just shouting English everywhere. (And yes, I could have gotten by that way.)

Just learning how Indonesians use their language to negotiate with each other -- sell to each other -- describe distances -- thank each other. This was the basic stuff of culture. But also, people were a good hundred times more involved when they thought I'd at least tried to learn their language.

After all, would you want to talk to someone whose attitude was: "Can't be bloody bothered, let them come to me"?
posted by argybarg at 7:32 AM on February 22, 2001


but I think they might have had a Welsh speaker in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, capital city of Wales...

Actually, Caffa, it would have to have been a token Welsh speaker, since the industrial south coast has been almost entirely English-speaking for a good couple of centuries. Welsh is very much the minority language in Wales, but it's doing better than most, thanks to a concerted drive to put it back in the classrooms, and into official paperwork/signage etc.

Anyway, it's a real pity that we don't teach foreign languages in primary school, when kids are receptive to them, rather than starting at the age of 11 when they're resentful at the rote-learning it entails.
posted by holgate at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2001


They did not translate "Scusi" as "get out of my way" accidentally. That's how Italians use it - on the street, when shoving past people. :)

And as for the Welsh - I thought that was most fair of all - calling a place in Wales and speaking Welsh should have had great odds of success. Too bad it didn't.
posted by annathea at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2001


calling a place in Wales and speaking Welsh should have had great odds of success

You'd think, yes, but Welsh is a really localised language. (From personal experience, there's a large Welsh-speaking group at my college: they've been lobbying MS for a while to get a localised Welsh version of Windows...) That said, I do think it's a bit of an oversight, I think, not to have bilingual staff on the switchboard of the main stadium in Wales. But you'd be more likely to find someone with Welsh as a first language in Patagonia than Cardiff.

But try calling a place in Scotland and speaking Scots Gaelic. Or a place in Northern Ireland and speaking Irish. Or some places in Quebec and speaking English ;)
posted by holgate at 1:04 PM on February 22, 2001


The scusi bit was dry wit. My favorite was about 2/3 down when they called the EU offices for a copy of the Maastricht treaty and the woman clearly knew better German than the caller ... and seemed to know it, too.

Spent six weeks in Sweden a while back. My attempts to speak Swedish (praised by my cousins, "like a native!") were usually gently rebuffed by a response in English. There was only one place it was a problem, a store where the shopkeeper got her daughter to talk to my Dad.

To me, simply choosing to learn one foreign language says that you're adopting the idea that your country, culture, and language are not the be-all and end-all. (For some Americans, this is a bigger task than learning the language itself.) I had wanted to learn German in junior high, but class size forced me into French instead, and while I'm quite happy to know it, and it's useful in literature and art contexts, it's less useful today in the wider context of the world than German would be. Though even German probably is in overall decline.
posted by dhartung at 1:12 PM on February 22, 2001


"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse." -- Charles V.
posted by holgate at 1:50 PM on February 22, 2001


I can speak only English, does this mean I'm ignorant of all cultures other than my own?

Well, you can't really have first-hand experience with them. All you see is someone's interpretation of them. If you read a translation of a literary work in another language, you get that person's interpretation of that work. You can find someone to tell you about their culture, but you can't really experience it. The literature and language of a country forms in a great way their identity, if the only language you speak is your own, you don't know anyone else's cultural identity.

Even studying grammar tells you something about culture... my friend Katie said Japanese grammar is very precise and simple. Look at Japanese art and architecture -- same thing. Then look at German, in all of its rule-based, confusing, confounding glory. Yeah.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:57 PM on February 22, 2001


I know very well that Welsh is largely spoken in northern Wales and that the southern areas were bludgeoned into anglophone submission. I should probably have said, 'I do think they might have had a Welsh speaker...'
Holgate, how far would you say there's a distinct Welsh culture, and does it correlate to Welsh speaking areas? I'm aware of several Welsh-speaking bands (as opposed to the Manics, Stereophonics - I'm thinking of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci et al) and then there are people like Niall Griffiths...
I suppose the point I'm trying to get at is, if people are denied the use of their native language, do they also lose some of their native culture? I think the answer is probably yes, which would certainly add fuel to the argument that you can't understand another culture without some knowledge of its language.
Obviously I'm not saying that English speakers are deliberately trying to impose English-speaking culture on the rest of the world. Any longer.
posted by Caffa at 4:17 AM on February 23, 2001


Well, you can't really have first-hand experience with [cultures other than your own if you speak only English]

Yes, but... how many of us get to travel to the extent that we'll actually get to have first-hand experience with some other culture, even if we did speak another language? While some of us will get to travel on business, the chances of us traveling somewhere the language we know is spoken are pretty slim. A friend of mine got to take a couple trips to Tokyo recently on business. I'd be thrilled to be able to go, and may someday, but fat lot of good my high-school Spanish will do me there.

Are the classic operas any less appreciated by English-speakers because they're in German or Italian? Do we need to speak French to appreciate the paintings in the Louvre? Did my lack of knowledge of Mandarin keep me from enjoying the hell out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and learning things about Chinese culture in the process)? I'm sure you'd miss some things in all the above scenarios, but good art transcends language barriers.
posted by kindall at 9:39 AM on February 23, 2001


Even if you aren't able to travel, you can still enjoy some of the culture. Take, for instance, Spanish (which I took in Grade 10, thereby ruining my ability to speak French because the two are too damn similar for me to differentiate anymore). Part of the instructional method was to listen to Mexican music, explore cultural festivals, stuff like that.

By absorbing and learning about the culture, we were encouraged to explore and learn the language, and vice-versa.

I agree that it's possible to get an academic understanding of a culture without speaking the language, but to really understand what's going on you need to explore it from within, so to speak.

That doesn't apply just to foreign languages/cultures, either. I think subcultures and dialects reflect each other greatly. Also, class systems with different dialects.

I'm don't really have a point, just tossing in some facets to consider.
posted by cCranium at 9:59 AM on February 23, 2001


(as opposed to the Manics, Stereophonics - I'm thinking of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci et al)

nice call, Caffa: a good friend, who lived across from me in my first year at college, went to the same school in west Wales as Gorky's -- in fact, they were basically the school band. And it was a school (or should I say "Ysgol"?) that had Welsh as its primary language of teaching.

But I'm a little sceptical at the notion of a linguistically suppressed Welsh identity, particularly at a time when it's considered sexy to come from west of the Severn.

First of all, Wales is like much of Britain, in that its national identity is oppositional: it's "Wales" when it's against the English at rugby, but within Wales, local identity is much more regionalised. With good reason: it's more or less impossible to travel between north and south Wales by car or train without taking a detour into England. And my Welsh friends are much ruder about people from elsewhere in Wales than they are about the English. That's not because of "anglophone suppression": rather, the industrial south has developed a Welshness that has precious little to do with speaking Welsh. Indeed, the urban anglos in Swansea or Cardiff tend to regard rural "cwmmers" as backward.

Secondly, the "Welsh revival" stems from Victorian romanticising of a Celtic past that didn't exist. Too many Tennyson poems, and you start wanting to revive a dead language.

So, I think on the one hand, there's plenty that makes Welsh culture distinctive without emphasising the effect of language: like Scotland, it's traditionally left-wing, working-class, and intellectually radical. That's why devolution is such fun right now.

[Disclaimer: I'm not Welsh, but being at the "Welsh" college in Oxford gives you a sense of what it entails as a cultural identity. And what it's like to be an excluded minority: especially when you're English and in the bar on Welsh Society nights.]
posted by holgate at 2:45 PM on February 23, 2001


(Found this while looking for something else. Don't suppose anyone else'll ever stumble upon this, but...)

Secondly, the "Welsh revival" stems from Victorian romanticising of a Celtic past that didn't exist. Too many Tennyson poems, and you start wanting to revive a dead language.

Welsh was hardly a 'dead language' in Victorian times. In 1851, over three quarters of the population was Welsh speaking, the majority of them monoglots.

But you'd be more likely to find someone with Welsh as a first language in Patagonia than Cardiff.

Not any more. The Welsh speaking population of Cardiff has been steadily increasing since the 1950s:
For example, there were 17,346 Welsh speakers in Cardiff in 1991, an increase of 79% on the 1951 figure, and it was estimated that over 10% of all Welsh-speakers in Wales lived within a 25 mile radius of the capital. (source)
In some areas of Cardiff the influx of middle class Cymry Cymraeg is having the same effect on the housing market as the influx of English monoglots is having on the traditional Welsh speaking areas.
posted by ceiriog at 11:49 AM on December 4, 2001


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