Saturday, July 01, 2006

Dwa zywiec Prosze

One of the real pleasures of reading blogs is spotting the memes that pop up – reading different perspectives on the same issue, or discovering that others are thinking about the issue you have been contemplating. Spotted Elephant has recently blogged about her plan to learn Spanish because “we should be encouraging Americans to learn more than one language.” This is a problem that also persists in the UK, where choosing to study a second language at GCSE (age 14-16) is no longer compulsory. On holiday in Poland I became painfully aware of the privilege of speaking English as a first language. All the signs, menus, and museums in tourist areas are displayed in Polish and English. When sitting at a café we heard an Italian couple ask a Polish waitress in English for an English menu. And I have to say we felt embarrassed. We did attempt to communicate in Polish, although our repertoire only really extended to hello, goodbye, thank you and two beers please. On the whole we found that unless we tried to speak Polish, service would be pretty surly – and quite right too.

As an English speaking English citizen I unquestioningly expect other people to speak English to me. Where do I get off thinking that? I was in Poland – I should be speaking Polish not waiting for them to speak in my language. I’m clearly not going to be able to speak the language fluently but to fail to attempt it at all is unbelievably disrespectful.

This has got me thinking about the other languages I could potentially learn and the reasons for learning them. I’ve had a quick look at the Birmingham council site and the National Statistics site and was surprised to discover that data relating to language is not collected in the census. This demonstrates the level of language blindness that exists in the UK at the moment – how can any services be accurately provided if nobody is certain which languages are being spoken? A website that I have found helpful was the National Centre for Languages which lists a load of sources for discovering which languages are being spoken (although the sources very London-centred). Unsurprisingly Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu come out as key languages again and again, alongside other European languages.

It seems there are many reasons for learning a second language. Firstly there is the pleasure it can give – I speak passable French and it feels fantastic when I can have everyday conversations in France. Necessity is another reason, but in all honesty there is no need for me to learn another language. Despite living in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country it is massively segregated. I am white and middle class and I just don’t come across non-English speakers very often. I’m not advocating this as a good thing but it is the reality of the situation. Attempting to become a more active participant in this community despite a lack of pressing necessity would be beneficial but then there is the problem of which language to learn. My dad, who works at the Citizens Advice Bureau, says that the diversity of languages his team uses is so great that there is little or no benefit to singling one out. In this situation an awareness of what is being spoken is perhaps more important than in depth knowledge.

I plan to become a commercial solicitor and from a business sense English is the main language for communication. However in recent months the papers have been full of the need to recognise China as the massive market that it is, and from a commercial perspective it seems Mandarin Chinese is the way forward. The UK is also part of the European Union, and a second European language is always beneficial both in business terms and practical terms because of the free movements allowed by the Union. According to Wikipedia there are globally as many native Spanish speakers as there are native English speakers (and there are plenty more Chinese speakers than that).

Having thought about this more I’ve begun to realise how much I am actually missing out on by only speaking one language. I read so many books in translation, and although great translation is an art in itself I am sure I would gain something from reading these works in the original language. As I only speak English I really lack confidence in tackling other languages when I go on holiday – and I am limiting myself in terms of the local cultures that I can experience. All in all I’m shocked by how closed minded I have been about language without even realising it.

This seems to be part of the general British mindset. So much news coverage is dominated by thinly veiled racism directed at the language skills of immigrants and refugees, and less disguised racism towards other European countries. Languages do not take priority at school. I didn’t start studying French until I was 12, and studied German for only one year. The general unspoken view is that everybody else speaks English so we can sit back and be complacent. This may or may not be the case but the result is a sense of linguistic superiority that has little or no grounding in reality. We fail to appreciate the privilege our native language gives us, which inevitably leads to an insular and nationalistic society.


At 6:20 pm, Blogger spotted elephant said...

If countries/people didn't have that nationalistic mindet, it would obviously benefit interactions on a personal and national level. But if we appreciated diversity, it would have a much more practical benefit: we wouldn't wait until puberty to start teaching kids other languages.

This is such a stupid way to do things. Our brains are primed to learn languages when we're young. We pick it up naturally. I forget when this ability shuts off for most people, but it's before the typical student starts taking foreign language courses. Something that could be simple and fun becomes much more difficult. It's no wonder that so many only speak one language.

At 10:30 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

It's true! The only reason I am pretty comfortable with French is because on camping holidays to Brittany my parents always encouraged my sister and I to order food and buy things by speaking French. It gave me confidence and the words stuck in my memory.

My language education at school was abysmal - French for 5 years in the bottom set (although I did score an a* off my own back...but the less said about school set systems the better) and German for a year during which time I learnt to ask if I could take my blazer off.

Pretty much everyone I know would love to be able to speak another language, it's just so damn difficult to learn when you are an adult.

At 6:39 am, Blogger nectarine said...

I am planning on learning another langauge, probably Welsh, because I am really interested in the politics of translation and I dont think you can fully grasp all the nuances of that unless you are at least bilingual if not multi lingual. I'm really interested in the way the different peices of writing (especialy poetry) are put together and how things are said differently and the idea that if you do not have a word for something you can't think it the same way that other langauges that dio have a word for it can

At 12:16 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

Yeh I think it is interesting how they tranlate literature - I studied classics as an option at university and it was amazing the difference between translations of the same work - often poetry was much better when translated into prose because the meaning remained the same, but then you lost the original rhythm.

Good luck with learning seems a pretty tricky language and about the only Welsh I've managed to pick up is pedwar (from watching s4c!). Appalling I know.


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