Learning a foreign language does make a difference
It was in my second faltering year of Chinese lessons that my long-suffering teacher told me, “You have a much better understanding of how the language works than my other students.”
“Unfortunately,” she added, “This is not helping you speak Chinese.
So much for my pride. Having done a degree in Spanish and French, and picked up a bit of Swahili in Kenya, I rather fancied myself as a linguist but Chinese gave me my comeuppance. Yet I don’t regret having a go, nor the years I spent reading Proust and Cervantes in the original, and I think it’s hugely disappointing that British children are no longer studying modern languages.
Fewer than one in four of this year’s GCSE students – 22.7 per cent – studied French, with the numbers falling from 341,604 students in 2002 to 177,618. This year alone, there was a further 5.9 per cent fall. German has slumped from 130,976 to 70,619.
They don’t know what they’re missing.
The business arguments are made frequently. China is the world’s largest emerging market, and you need to know the language to understand the customs and culture. Of course, millions of Chinese are learning English but any savvy businessperson wants to understand what’s being said when his or her counterparts are chatting amongst themselves. Why would you choose to be deaf or illiterate?
But what about European languages? It’s French and German which seem to be dying in British schools. It’s a myth that francophones all speak English – when I’m reporting from France, or French speaking West and Central Africa, I work in French all the time. It means I don’t just talk to the educated middle class but to everyone.
Politicians nearly always like to speak in their native language, so it’s a huge advantage to be able to understand. Of course I have to work through translators in countries where I don’t speak the language, but I think I do a better job when I can communicate directly.
Take the time I reported from Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony. The flunkies around President Obiang wanted me to conduct my interview in English but I knew that they would never translate my questions about corruption and poverty, so I insisted on doing it in Spanish. As a result, I got him to admit that only he and his uncle were signatories to the private account at the Riggs Bank in Washington into which all the country’s oil revenues were paid.
British politicians have recently complained that the cream of EU jobs are being snapped up by – err – Europeans. That’s partly because they learn each other’s languages, while the recalcitrant British don’t see why they should bother. So much for being at the heart of Europe.
And then there’s the question of our brains. Study after study shows that those who are bilingual or learn another language develop enhanced concentration and cognitive skills and even stave off dementia.
(All those Chinese lessons may yet prove their worth!)
Being able to communicate is one of the most satisfying things you can do, not to mention the wealth of literature that opens up. But perhaps the most articulate champion of language learning I’ve read recently is the translator Michael Hoffman, who writes:
“On the individual level, think of the loss of possibility, the preordained narrowness of a life encased in one language, as if you were only ever allowed one, as if it were your skin in which you were born. Or your cage. That’s your lot.
When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: “We are a language species”, he didn’t mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where’s the joy and the richness, if you don’t even have two to rub together?
If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It’s harder to play.”
That makes me feel lucky, because however bad my Chinese (and believe me, it is bad) I understand what he means. I guess we speak the same language.