The Importance of Language Skills

In a recent report the British Council warned that a post-Brexit Britain will need more rather than fewer language skills. ‘Language skills must be a priority’ – the headline trumpets. Yes, must, but it won’t (thanks to Sunny Singh for the Tweet which inspired this!). I’ve seen this time and again – and there are many reasons for the lack of interest in other languages.

  1. Those of us who come from ‘little’ cultures with lesser-known languages know all too well that English has become the universal language of business and even tourism to some extent. What’s the point of learning to say a few stuttering words in Polish or Japanese or Spanish when everyone is eager to practise their English on you anyway?
  2. English is easier to learn (or at least the basic Global English which passes for English on the international scene) than many other languages: relatively simple grammar even if you don’t quite master when to use the present participle or the past tense. And you can get by on a reduced vocabulary. As for spelling – well, many native English speakers don’t spell all that well – and what are spellcheckers for, anyway?
  3. Americans and Brits have dominated world politics and economics for the past 100-200 years, so everyone aspires to move over here and integrate into this culture and language. And if they don’t, shame on them, how dare they keep there stoopid backward traditions? Haven’t they seen how well integrated our British expats are in other societies?
  4. Everyone else is far away and pointlessly complicated. We’ve got enough things to worry about over here. If they really want to communicate with us, they should learn our language and tell us what they need/want/how they plan to invest in our country and make our economy great again.
  5. People keep saying how useful languages can be for your careers, but I can prove them wrong. Although people always say how impressive my array of languages is, they never ever hired or promoted me because of them. They gave me all the crummy jobs that no one else wanted because of them, put me in impossible situations to restore confidence in a relationship they had already destroyed through lack of cultural sensitivity and then blamed me when it didn’t go according to their myopic plan.
From TES.

So is there one thing that might tempt Brits to learn another language? Well, my older son has a theory about why English footballers fail to live up to their youthful promise. They don’t get much chance to play in the Premier League as they become adults, because of all the foreign players who do speak some English and are willing to relocate. And the English players are reluctant to move abroad and gain experience in other leagues, because they lack the language skills.

Of course, not all of us had the opportunity to learn languages at school (and the way they are taught and the lack of teachers or high standards is another matter). But we can at least remain curious and open towards other cultures, read as much as we can in translation, ask questions, familiarise ourselves with world history and geography… But no, I was shocked to see that children from the age of 13 can opt out of history, geography and any languages other than English for their GCSE. They can study PE, food tech, photography and business studies instead – all very nice in themselves, but lacking the international perspective (at least in what they cover). No wonder we have insular Britain!

Finally, the secret spy part of me would like to know what other colleagues are whispering about me and the organisation in the corridors. The number of times I’ve heard German, French, Japanese, Romanian colleagues grumble about things in their own language sotto voce… and their American masters are none the wiser.

I suppose the only solution is for the Brits to retaliate with their ‘hmmm, such an interesting concept’ = ‘that’s a load of bollocks’.

British expats in Spain, from IB Times UK.

 

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac Léman. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timothée de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Bernières, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis, Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.