What do you call someone who speaks one language?

February 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Image: Markus Koljonen

Here’s an old joke for you:

Q. What do you call a person who speaks three languages?

A. Trilingual.

Q. What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

A. Bilingual.

Q. What do you call a person who speaks one language?

A. British.

(Or American… depends where the joke is being told.)

Sadly, the stereotype of the monolingual English speaker is truer than ever.

In June 2012, the European Union released a special “Europeans and their Languages” report based on research carried out in March of that year. This was a part of their ongoing Eurobarometer project, which offers a regular snapshot of how Europeans live and think. It has been asking EU citizens since 1973 about everything from racism to the environment.

The results of the survey always offer some interesting insights. For example, 98% of Europeans thinks that foreign languages are useful for children to learn for their future. 79% think that English is the most useful language to learn. Since the 2005 report, the proportion of Europeans who consider French and German important for children to learn dropped by 13 percentage points and 8 points respectively.

Which nation was least likely to agree that “everyone in the EU should speak a second language other than their mother tongue”? That’d be Britain. Although 72% of people still agreed that it was important.

Like with all European language reports, you have to read between the lines sometimes. For example, respondents were asked whether EU institutions should “adopt a single language” to communicate with European citizens. What language would that be, then? English is not named. It couldn’t be named for political reasons. But 53% of people thought that the EU should communicate in this mysterious, nameless single language.

If it’s not going to be English, perhaps someone on a committee in Brussels could choose via a tombola: “and the language that the EU shall communicate in from now on is… Basque. Good luck, or should I say, zorte ona!”

The report also goes on to say that Europeans believe no single language should be prioritised within the EU. Although how that fits with a single-language policy is unclear.

But we don’t agree on everything…

Believe it or not, the most divisive question in the survey was whether respondents prefer subtitling or dubbing. More than 90% of Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and Danish respondents prefer subtitles compared to less than 25% in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

If you have lived abroad before and tried to learn a language, you will probably have developed a deep hatred of dubbing. Subtitling can be really helpful when you are learning a new language as you are presented with the local language and a second language, which is usually English.

One encouraging piece of information to come from the survey is that Brits are significantly more likely than the average European to prefer subtitles to dubbed movies, although the high percentage of British respondents who answered “don’t know” to the question suggests that the issue is not really in the UK’s public consciousness.

So, back to the data…

39% of people surveyed in Britain responded that they could have a conversation in a second language (only Italy and Hungary were lower). 14% reported that they could have a conversation in a third language as well (only Portugal and Hungary were lower). The most multilingual countries surveyed were unsurprisingly smaller, wealthy countries with much larger neighbours (Luxembourg, the Netherlands).

Of Europe’s large nations where world languages are spoken, Britain comes out consistently worst for ability with foreign languages. No great surprise there.

All statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Eurobarometer survey was conducted face to face on the streets, with a relatively small sample of people. And one person’s definition of holding a conversation is likely to differ from another person’s.

Also, a much wider variety of languages are spoken in Britain than in most European countries. A glance at the 2011 census shows that four million people in the UK do not speak English as their main language. But history suggests their children will.

Just what is it that we find so hard about learning another language in Britain?

Photo: Jody Morris

There are many reasons given for why we struggle with foreign languages in Britain:

  1. The huge output of film, music and television from the English-speaking world, and especially the USA, means that you can comfortably live your daily life without being exposed to foreign languages. There have only ever been five UK number one singles sung in a foreign language (one, two, three, four, five… although it’s really too soon to click on five).
  2. Everyone speaks English anyway. There is something to this, but maybe the figures aren’t quite what you would expect. The Eurobarometer report shows that 38% of Europeans surveyed claimed to speak English. But many of these reported speaking at a high level. In big cities and tourist centres the figure is likely to be much higher.
  3. Being Englished really doesn’t help. If your native language is English, you are likely to receive an answer in English, especially if you are not fluent when trying to speak to someone in another language.
  4. And then there is the education system. Since Tony Blair’s Labour government (remember “education, education, education”?) removed the compulsory foreign language GSCE, the number of pupils studying a language until the age of 16 has plummeted. In 2012, only 23% of state schools had a compulsory foreign language GCSE. Why? Because foreign languages are “hard” and can negatively affect league table performance. Sadly, in a country where league tables are so important, they probably have a point.

Is the situation going to improve?

Looking at the factors listed above, the only one that can be directly influenced in the short term would be governmental language policy. By making a foreign language compulsory until 16 again, the government could guarantee that young people are exposed to foreign language learning at the age when it is most beneficial. Even if you are nowhere near fluency after a GCSE, you will have a foundation to build from.

Whether the government is likely to change this policy, on the other hand, is far from certain. For many, because of the dominance of English internationally, the issue is just not pressing enough to merit a debate. In some European countries, language policy makes headlines but that is not the case in the UK (the exception being occasional complaints from parts of the right wing press about immigrants arriving in Britain and not learning English).

So, for now, it looks like it’s up to you. Fortunately, if you really want to learn a language, you can. There are many free resources available online. There is, however, nothing better than learning in immersion, so if you get the chance to live abroad for a while, that’s your best shot at learning another language to a good standard. And it’s a life-changing experience too.

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