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.

 

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Elizabeth von Arnim’s Eccentric Charm

After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.

Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.

Archive picture of Nassenheide manor with April, May and June babies.

To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…

The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.

Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…

Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.

Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.

Original picture of Nassenheide from 19th century.

If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:

To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.

It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.

Another archive picture of Nassenheide during Elizabeth’s time there. The property has been demolished and now lies within the borders of Poland.