Lost For Words – The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language

Language is a gift that allows us to perceive and interact with the world around us and listen to the people who make today what it is.

I usually relate quite strongly to the opinion articles written in The Guardian. Most of them have a sort of utopic-leftish tinge that refreshes me with romanticism and idealism, so out-of-place in today’s world. The article inspiring this post, however, is filled with short-sightedness, misconceptions, and even borders on contempt towards others. The author, who I presume can only speak English, casts serious doubts about the value of learning a second language at school. He argues that present-day school students are brilliantly clever, and instinctively know whether the school curriculum is useful or not and, once at university, do not enrol on language courses.

Pupils are not stupid. They take subjects they find relevant to their future lives. European languages are not that. Europe is universally adopting English as a lingua franca.

According to the article, students who really want to learn a second language are better off taking a total immersion crash course, rather than spending two hours a week at school taking foreign language lessons from a teacher who isn’t even foreign. Despite this lack of British enthusiasm for foreign languages, Chinese is popular because – logic has it – there are so many Chinese people in the world that you are bound to run into one, some day, and ask him the time. But the most ridiculous reason given for not having to learn a second language if you are born and bred in Britain is that, “who cares, the rest of Europe speaks English anyway…”  What the author forgets to mention is that there’s a very good reason for that – most Europeans are much better at learning a second language than the Brits. As luck would have it, that second language is most of the time, English.

When I first arrived in the Netherlands, fully equipped with my “Learn Dutch In Three Months” book squashed into my trouser pocket, I was amazed to see how the Dutch were so fluent in Shakespearean language. What is more, the fluency was not only present in the educated upper classes, but extended right across the social board. Even after nearly twenty years, when in Amsterdam, my “Dutch with a foreign accent,” although perfectly understandable, elicits an answer in English by many a shopkeeper. In doing so, the Dutch are not trying to show off their linguistic skills, but are genuinely being helpful to the stranded tourist.

Germany is Europe’s most important country of our day. Teach its history, revel in its culture, analyse the strength of its economy. Visit its cities and countryside – and see how much better they are planned and protected than ours. In comparison, learning Germany’s language is not that important.

Well, sorry to disappoint, but my experience in Germany is very different, with shop assistants refusing to speak English and insisting on continuing speaking German to me, even though I made it clear that I couldn’t understand. People in other European countries, like Italy and Spain, are also not so keen to speak English to you or just haven’t got the audacity to do so. As for the French, they have been reticent for years and are clearly hostile to the invasion of English words in their vocabulary, and shiver at the thought of having to speak the English lingo. The reason they invoke is “l’exception culturelle” (the cultural exception), by which French culture – rather like the Chinese panda – is in danger of dying out and should be protected at all cost. To be fair, mentalities are changing in France, but there’s still a long way to go.

Of the all countries in Europe, Luxembourg, the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands seem to be the most language orientated. A very interesting report was published by the European Commission in 2012, entitledEuropeans And Their Languages.” It relates the use of languages in 29 European countries (the 24 EU members at the time, and 5 other countries). The report is based on the answers given by more than 26.000 participants from different social and demographic backgrounds, interviewed in their mother tongue.

Results showed that 94% of respondents living in the Netherlands were able to speak at least one language – well enough to have a conversation – in addition to their mother tongue. This highly impressive finding was only bettered by Luxembourg (96%) and, surprisingly, Latvia (95%). This contrasts markedly with the UK, where 61% of respondents were not capable of speaking another language, apart from their own. Interestingly, the percentages of respondents speaking 2 or 3 languages are still quite high in Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with 37% of Dutch respondents able to speak at least 3 languages in addition to their mother tongue – compared to 5% in the UK.

The Dutch seem to be quite talented at learning languages. In the latest world ranking of countries by English skills, the Netherlands come up on top, followed closely by the Scandinavian countries. But what, then, makes the Dutch so good at learning a second language – English, in particular? As it would be ludicrous to say that they are more intelligent than anybody else, the answer must either be found in the Dutch education system or in the mentality and way-of-life. After primary school, Dutch children follow selective secondary school curricula, depending on their primary school performances. Only the top-level offers bi-lingual classes (for which the parents must pay extra), with many lessons given in English. However, this does not explain why over 90% of Dutch people can speak very good English, since only 20% of primary pupils make it to the top-notch secondary school curriculum. Language teaching in the other curricula is similar to that dispensed in the UK.

The Dutch expertise in the English language stems from the fact that, paradoxically, the English language forms a central part of Dutch culture without even hindering it. Apart from selected TV programmes for the young, all foreign films and TV shows are shown in their original language with Dutch subtitles – and there are no exceptions. Be it the latest two-hour blockbuster or a twenty-seconds interview of an African leader shown in a news bulletin, if it’s not Dutch, it’s sub-titled. This makes for a lot of passive learning, for the young in particular who, like anywhere else in Europe, spend a lot of time on the TV couch. What’s more, even the Dutch, who think they can speak good English, have the courage and self-confidence to speak it, even if that makes them look silly.

“That’s another cook” is an erroneous translation from a Dutch saying “andere koek” meaning “another biscuit” – which should be translated into English as “that’s another cup of tea.” Silly Van Gaal, but at least he tries – and we all know that practice makes perfect.

There is a more serious side to the benefits of learning a foreign language. Being able to communicate using an alternative language system enhances the longevity of your brain, with several studies showing that being bi-lingual slows the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia by up to 5 years. Cognitive functions are also enhanced, and thinking in a foreign language may help you make rational decisions without emotional bias associated with a native tongue. Would this have been an antidote to the Brexit vote, I wonder?

Of course, speaking a foreign language isn’t all about appearing clever on a television screen and maintaining a fitter brain. It’s also about learning to respect, understand and love others, in the same way that they should respect you. The Europeans have proved that. The love and respect for the English language is widespread in many countries in Europe, and nowhere more so than in the Netherlands, because the English and Dutch languages merge in a distant past.

The argument that the teaching of foreign languages is no longer an important part of secondary education is misconceived. School is not only about teaching what appears to be useful in the short-term. Secondary education must have higher aspirations than wanting to satisfy practicality. Opening a child’s mind to others and making him/her see that alternatives exist that are just as beautiful, is as important as teaching maths.

Language is a gift that allows us to perceive and interact with the world around us and listen to the people who make today what it is. Maybe it’s time that some of us treat it as such, and accept it when offered. The more gifts we possess, the richer we are.

About George Suchett-Kaye

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George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.

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