We like to boast about how global Britain is, but when it comes to learning a second language we are near the bottom of the league
The ability to speak a second language is in steep decline. But does it matter? After all, English is now the lingua franca, spoken widely from Berlin to Beijing, Paris to Tokyo, not to mention New York and Sydney. That seems to be what the British now think: they are voting with their tongues, no longer embarrassed by being monolingual. It has always been the same, but now it is even more the case.
We ought to feel extremely uncomfortable about this. We are happy to boast about being a country with a strong sense of the global, about London being one of the world’s great global cities. Our leaders increasingly see fit to lecture the ethnic minorities on the need to integrate, including of course the need to speak English. What about the need, though, for Britain to integrate with the rest of the world? It is not good enough to expect everyone else to speak English: at root it remains a deeply arrogant attitude. Far from demonstrating our worldliness it is testimony to our parochialism. Earlier this week, the IPPR published a very interesting report about the growing numbers of British now living abroad. The most popular destinations by far remain the English-speaking countries, but even when they go to Spain, for example, the failure of the vast majority to integrate – especially their failure to learn Spanish – remains striking.
The problem with the lingua franca argument is twofold. First, it is just not true that everyone else now speaks English. In fact, English ranks only second in the world in terms of those who speak it as a first or second language: there are twice as many Mandarin speakers. And, moreover, the number of English speakers only narrowly leads the number of Hindi, and indeed Spanish, speakers. Move beyond the educated elite, and the great majority in most countries outside Europe don’t speak English.
Second, language is not merely a tool of communication, it is the means by which one accesses a culture. It is the expression of a culture. In other words, to understand a people, it is necessary to speak their own language, not the one they are using for our benefit. In the era of globalisation, we should not expect everyone to speak our language, it is incumbent upon us to speak the language of others.
Third, the present status of English is not necessarily cast in stone. It is reasonable to assume that the rise of China will be accompanied by the rise of Mandarin: indeed, this process is already underway. In 50 years time, the linguistic texture of the world could look rather different, led by Mandarin, with Hindi, Arabic and Spanish all far more widely-spoken than now. With the United States in slow long-term decline, how will that effect the position of English? And where will all that leave monolingual Britain?
Our political leaders like to boast about how global Britain is: but when it comes to languages it is near the bottom of the global league, together with another island state, Japan. Here are three things we should do. First, it should be compulsory to learn a foreign language from the age of five. It is much easier to learn another language when you are young, enthusiastic and unembarrassed. Second, there is little point in restricting the languages available to the standard menu of French, perhaps together with a couple of other European languages. We are not living in the “age of Europe”, but the “global era”, with the rise of Asia its most striking characteristic. For this reason Chinese should be made widely available. Third, one of our greatest assets is that among our newer citizens are many who speak foreign languages, not least Hindi and the closely related Urdu. Let’s make integration a two-way process and use their language skills as a means and a resource for those who only speak English to learn Hindi. Imagine the possibilities that would open up.