By Emily Jopling
“You’re so lucky that English is your native language.”
I have often been at the receiving end of this comment. Recently, however, I have come to see my linguistic heritage as more of a curse than a blessing. Being an anglophone merely provides us with an excuse to be lazy.
Two months into my study abroad year in France, I am becoming increasingly embarrassed in shops and restaurants as my attempts to frantically piece together scraps of GCSE French are greeted with a sympathetic look that says “well done for trying,” followed by an English reply. And it’s not just the local French who leave me feeling inadequate. I am constantly stunned by fellow international students from Germany, Italy, China, and elsewhere, who are all able to flawlessly converse in a minimum of two languages.
What strikes me most is the confidence that exuberates when these non-anglophones begin speaking. They are the first to raise their hands in class and are not fazed when they make mistakes. Perhaps if I were less sheepish and self-conscious when speaking French in public I would not always receive an English reply.
Speaking English provides us with an excuse to be lazy
This confidence, I am sure, stems from having a very different introduction to languages in their education. Across Europe and much of the wider world, learning English is a core subject from primary school, and often becomes supplemented by a third language a few years later. Children are encouraged to immerse themselves in popular anglophone culture, through watching television and films and listening to music. Many parents even send their kids off to spend a semester abroad during school on cultural exchanges where they live with host families. Languages are taught in such a way that people consider them as accessible and accomplishable undertakings.
In England, the situation is rather different. When I was at school, you were lucky if you went to a primary that offered French classes once a fortnight. Many people’s first experience of another language, therefore, happened at secondary school. Even then, schools are generally limited to offering French, German, or Spanish, and whilst a language is usually compulsory at GCSE level it certainly is not considered as valuable as maths or science subjects. This means teenagers take languages far less seriously.
In England, languages always seem to be inaccessible. Foreign, even
At my school, only three students went on to take A-Level French, whilst over thirty took maths. It seems naïve to suggest that this is merely a direct reflection of subject popularity. I can’t help but think that the lack of interest is down to an English curriculum which undervalues languages and cultural studies. It is reflective of a disregard for languages embedded from the beginning of education. English children grow up lacking confidence in their study of languages because they have not always been a part of education in the way that maths, science or English have. Languages do not appear to us to be accessible. They seem perplexing and impenetrable – foreign in all senses of the word.
So, should we blame ourselves when our curriculum permits us to be lazy? For years we have been complacent by counting on the fact that English is the language of business and the assumption that, when travelling, everyone else will cater to our own idleness. But today these arguments are becoming increasingly void. Long gone are the days when the spotlight shone on the British Empire and America; now the international stage is shifting towards the powers of China and India. Equally French, a language which used to be hugely influential across the world, is rapidly being overtaken by Spanish. As globalisation makes the idea of living and working abroad more appealing, we are consistently losing out on job opportunities to our international counterparts who have a working knowledge of another language. England is showing a lack of cultural modernity in a world becoming increasingly dominated by non-anglophone powers. Not only does it need to take a huge leap to catch up with the linguistic successes of non-anglophone countries, it also needs to consider which languages are the most important for children to learn today. Perhaps Mandarin, Spanish, or Arabic should be replacing the traditional French and German.
That said, some progress has been made, as languages are now a compulsory subject in English primary schools. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, there still needs to be a significant change in the English education system regarding the value that we attach to languages. This, I believe, comes alongside the need for a less self-aggrandising perception of ourselves as a country in today’s international climate. In my mind, knowledge of another language can only bring opportunity, and is never a hindrance.
Photograph: goodmami via Flickr and Creative Commons