A sixteen year old Ukrainian refugee has just achieved a B in his Welsh (as a second language) GCSE, after a few months. That makes me very happy.
Why? Well, I am not Welsh and, though I go to Wales often for family reasons, I cannot speak a word of the language. If I were to live in Wales I would try to learn some Welsh, just as I would try to learn Catalan if I lived in Catalonia. OK, the two are not comparable as Welsh identity is not primarily linguistic any more. It seems both polite and eminently sensible to learn the language if you live in a country or travel there regularly. Well it seems a good idea to me.
I was once trying to extract money out of a Portuguese ATM (in Faro’s ‘Algarve Shopping’). It was out of order and I turned to the person behind me and said: “Não funciona”.
I don’t speak Portuguese but I do speak Spanish so I guessed that the Portuguese for “It isn’t working” had to be close to the Spanish “no funciona”. I was right. The guy looked at me and I repeated my words. Still no reaction, so I said in English “It isn’t working”. He looked at me as if to say: “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
There was no “I’m sorry I don’t speak Portuguese”. His linguistic sensibilities were clearly such that he couldn’t even begin to guess what I might be saying, even though both words were extremely close to English.
Why? Because in the Algarve the British tourists’ attitude is: “What is the point of learning languages if they all speak English?”
Virtue in ignorance
So I know how many Brits would react to that Ukrainian boy. Many would immediately ask “Why bother learning a language like Welsh? Shouldn’t you be studying something that will help you get a job?”. They might even chuckle at the idea and mutter a few words of cod-Welsh. Many Brits cover up their lack of interest (and inability) in other languages by laughing at said languages and those who speak them. It is British exceptionalism, of course, an arrogant and totally unjustified sense of superiority that prevents all too many of us from regarding foreigners as worthy of respect or attention.
That the ability to speak a foreign language might be of value does not occur to them. Somehow they manage to feel good about an inability to do something (not to mention a total lack of curiosity). This indifference lies at the very heart of the disdain for education that is central to the populist mindset. You come across this all the time in the mutterings of Professor Goodwin, who sees exceptional virtue in those who lack education, while dismissing the educated as a sneering, out-of-touch elite.
My own language ‘journey’ (ugh) started with French and German, which I went on to teach. Later, with the help of the Erasmus scheme, I took up Spanish which I have studied throughout Spain and more recently in Argentina and Mexico. Learning Spanish has changed my life and opened up new horizons – unknowns that were previously unknown to me. None of this would have happened were it not for the enthusiasm of my teachers at Gosford Hill School in Kidlington who started me off with French and German.
It really doesn’t matter a lot what language you start with (though it helps if your chosen language is spoken nearby). If you succeed, you gain the confidence to learn others and improvise when dealing with similar languages. So my German helps me with Dutch and my French and Spanish help with Rumanian, Catalan, Italian and Portuguese. I am just about able to make myself understood in these last two languages and can phone up taxi firms, restaurants and hotels.
That is the superficial ‘useful’ bit, but actually it isn’t that useful because most of the time we can get away with English when checking in at the airport and ordering dinner. The really useful bit is harder to grasp for non-linguists, because learning languages, especially in situ, expands our horizons and enables us to look at the world differently. It can also make us question received notions of identity and nationhood bestowing upon us the “giftie” of which Burns spoke: “to see ourselves as others see us”. Alas, most Brits can never experience this, and worse still, they have no idea what they are missing. It is the ultimate unknown unknown and it impoverishes us metaphorically and literally.
Studying Spanish I was always struck by the relative absence of my compatriots. In Buenos Aires last year there were plenty of French, Germans, Swiss and Brazilians – not to mention the Dutch and Scandinavians. They pretty much all spoke excellent English, but they still want to learn Spanish. Why were there just two of us Brits? I met one Briton and he was a lovely chap, but only one. One.
Let’s be honest! The very notion of ‘global Britain’ is absurd. We are a deeply unserious inward-looking country, but oh aren’t we smug with it?
Amongst the many Brexiter comments I read on Twitter, there is a philistinism bordering on savagery. They care not at all for the vicissitudes experienced by musicians used to touring the EU without visas and carnets. “Get over it”, they sneer: “we’re out! How did the Beatles manage?”
Is it any surprise that consummate demagogue Nigel Farage targeted such people when he expressed his anger at the cacophony of foreign voices he heard on the train from Charing Cross to Kent? As he passed through Hither Green, no English voice was to be heard. ‘Quelle horreur’! He wasn’t against immigration, but … Farage is, of course, someone who spent many years in Brussels as an MEP, never managing to speak decent French or even German, the language of his former wife and, one assumes, his children. His supporters won’t care, though, will they? What’s the point? We’re British.
World beating we ain’t
To be fair learning languages has always been harder for English speakers, but when I was at school it was at least encouraged. Everyone in the O-Level stream at my comprehensive learnt a language. But things have changed and many state schools – particularly those in deprived areas – pretty much give up on languages, which are no longer compulsory for GCSE. Numbers at A-levels are now declining at a disastrous rate and the government, forever boasting about the excellence of our schools, seems not to care. Yet how can a school be ‘outstanding’ if hardly any of its students are studying a language at A-Level? World beating we ain’t.
Our declining interest in languages is evidence – if we needed it – of a declining interest in foreign culture. I’d go further – I would say it is proof that, at the moment, we as a nation are not that interested in culture. Let us not forget that pulp novelist and reality TV star Nadine Dorries was the last Culture Secretary. The arts survive, but they are not flourishing as they should and they will never have any chance of flourishing whilst the malign Brexit fantasy continues to hold sway over us in the way that Tolkien’s Wormtongue beguiled Théoden.
Yes, I started talking about language learning, but it came back to Brexit – it had to, because Brexit, like so much else in Britain today is like that ATM in Faro.