It’s widely acknowledged that the British are generally quite lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages. Imperialism is a concept we’d usually associate with politics or economics but, with Brexit now on the horizon, we’re reminded of the way in which the English language has historically dominated Europe, and indeed the world’s linguistic sphere, despite Britain being geographically (and soon to be politically), separate from the rest of the EU.
It seems as though the English language has been a symbol of Britain’s power and affluence ever since the colonial period. The British previously controlled territories in India, the Caribbean archipelago and great swathes of Africa amongst others, and British colonial power reached its apogee under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, following which it governed a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of its total land area. Whilst these countries are now officially independent, Britain’s colonial influence somewhat remains, in the sense of the continued use of English in these ex-colonies: a sort of unofficial neo-colonialism.
Britain’s colonial influence somewhat remains, in the sense of the continued use of English in these ex-colonies: a sort of unofficial neo-colonialism
British colonialism is often remembered for bloody events, such as the massacre in Amritsar under the British Raj as a response to the demand for independence. However, the linguistic and cultural trauma suffered by the colonised subject is often forgotten when, in fact, it’s the English language that’s today’s biggest reminder of Britain’s colonial influence, seeing as these countries are now independent. Having lived under the influence of what was taken to be the hegemonic British language and culture, the languages and dialects of the colonised have become unconsciously viewed as inferior to English, an attitude which we still see today, albeit less overtly.
A dominant whitewashed colonial narrative has become engrained in the British psyche. We not only know that most people will understand us when we speak English abroad, but we have grown to expect and, I dare say, even demand it. We need English as the lingua franca, and that’s no bad thing – in fact it’s essential to have a common language to which we can revert when the language barrier is too great. But this has allowed the British to become complacent, safe in the knowledge that we don’t need to learn foreign languages, because the world is replete with Anglophones. Whilst I don’t wish to undermine the importance of a lingua franca, the problem is that the very existence of it serves to exacerbate linguistic imperialism; thus, we find ourselves in a vicious circle.
And whilst the media acknowledges the extent of English speakers in the world, all too often it misses the negative knock-on effects. In 2017, The Telegraph published an article entitled: Where to go if you can’t be bothered to learn the language. Therein lies the problem. The British tend to see foreign language learning as an unnecessary chore, rather than an essential means of communication, in the way that the rest of the world sees the English language. And encouraging us to go to countries that have a particularly high percentage of English speakers is not the answer. I refer here to an article from Varsity: Western egocentrism is a tale of two worlds, which argues that ‘the relationship between western media and western reader is self-perpetuating, leading to a bias in reporting’. It seems as though the English language as the language of the coloniser is causing a linguistic hierarchy between coloniser and colonised, in a similar way to how the media tends to focus on events in the Western world. While I don’t wish to see the world within the binary of the East and the West, I would argue that the importance that is placed on the learning of the English language, as a language that’s historically associated with wealth and power, is perpetuating the existence of the concept of the Western world, as separate from the Eastern hemisphere, as is frequently found within colonial discourse.
The British tend to see foreign language learning as an unnecessary chore
In learning another language, we make a statement. By showing people of other countries that we’ve made an effort to learn at least a small part of their language, we’re showing that we’re open to new cultures and are willing to compromise linguistically. Compromise is not something that has typically featured in Britain’s colonial narrative and so it’s our job to try and show that we’re aware of cultural difference. After all, Britain is celebrated for its cosmopolitanism, but how can we be cosmopolitan if we seldom show a willingness to expose ourselves to new linguistic and cultural spheres?
Image by Linus Schutz via Pixabay