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.

 

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

Friday Fun: Artists’ Studios

As writers, we may be able to write in a bustling café, on a crowded kitchen table, in a cave with poor lighting, even in the shower with the right tools . But if we did have an artists’ studio, with perfect lighting, wouldn’t we be able to write even better?

Simon Starling, from the Independent.
Simon Starling, from the Independent.

 

ChanderConstruction
Studio for wildlife illustrator, Chander Construction.
Georgie Wolton's studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk
Georgie Wolton’s studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk
Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com
Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com

Bonus point: all those paintings/illustrations/pictures are really inspiring! But perhaps, after a while, you just get so used to them hanging around on your walls that you no longer see them. Over at dVerse Poets, Björn has us re-examining the familiar, disassociating ourselves from it, so that we can see it with fresh eyes once more. I’ve chosen the third of Tolstoy’s techniques  – use of dialect or a foreign language – to create this sense of ‘strangeness’.

Tablouri, desene, întinse pe jos,

pe pereţi, o dezordine în care nu găseşti

şi nu gândeşti

nimic

decit inspiraţie.

Nani? Hontoo?

Bitte schwätz langsamer…

(Just playing around in Romanian, Japanese and Swiss German. Translation is roughly: Paintings, sketches, scattered on floors, on the walls, a mess in which you can find and think nothing but inspiration. What? Really? Please talk more slowly…)