It is often lamented that there has been such a steady decline in foreign language learning among native English speakers. Only 4% of students in the Republic study a foreign language at university. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the outlook for European language learning is equally bleak: French and German have seen a steep decline since 2010.
During the protracted Brexit imbroglio (a nice Italian word), or political stalemate (imported from the French), English speakers have often noticed the ease with which continental Europeans regularly hold their press conferences in lightly accented English: Juncker , Tusk, Barnier, Macron, Rutte. How many British or Irish politicians could speak so confidently in French, German or Spanish?
The only British politician known to be an outstanding linguist is Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, who is fluent in Pashto, having spent time wandering the terrain of Afghanistan just for fun. Yet every time Juncker, Tusk, Barnier & Co spout English, they drive another nail into the coffin of language learning among English speakers.
Young people think: “Why learn foreign jargons when everyone speaks English? As daunting as that sounds to those of us who have always loved learning languages, that’s the brutal truth. English is global. Everyone does business there. The Swedes now publish all their scientific papers in English.
Just try speaking Dutch in the Netherlands, after learning a few polite phrases, such as “What is the way to the station?” You will inevitably be answered in English, which is perhaps better, after all.
It’s nice to learn a few words of someone else’s language – what a charm when visitors to Ireland walk out with the focal dome they’ve carefully rehearsed.
It’s also polite and a necessary etiquette to say “can I speak English?” when opening an English conversation.
But the Department for Education publication Languages Connect, recommending foreign languages ”for commerce and the economy and our own cultural life” is only right in the last claim. Cultural enhancement, okay. But trade and the economy? All done in English.
The other blunt truth is that most of us, in our lifetime, will not master a foreign language.
I spent years, on and off, trying to learn German, and while it was often very interesting, it was also a waste of time.
German is a deviously deceptive language: because it has a lexical similarity to English (many basic words, such as “mother” and “father”, are similar), it seems approachable at first glance. You can always go to first base: “Noch ein kaffee, bitte”.
But the head begins to spin when the grammar looms – “der Mann, den Mann, des Mannes, dem Mann”, as the case may be.
Then you try to read a newspaper like the Frankfurter Allegemeine – well, forget it.
I learned French when I was a teenager and learned to speak it quite well. But I still attend a monthly French conversation session and still need to read a French newspaper daily to maintain my skills. Language learning requires constant input and constant commitment. And I’m still learning.
If young people prefer to focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – their choice is justified. STEM will be much more useful. And most of the technical subjects they will tackle will be in English.
Portuguese audiologist technicians are now researching the development of hearing aids in English.
Bots and language apps are also increasingly being used as translation aids when communications are blocked.
Today, the only real reason to learn another language is to love it.
Yes, if you plan to live on the Costa del Sol, it would be polite and rewarding to learn Spanish, which also has global reach across the Americas.
And a few Mandarin and Arabic specialists will always be needed.
But, otherwise, English will take you everywhere, because the English language took everything before it: absorbed everything, from Hindi (“bungalow”) to Persian (“pajamas”), to Irish (“smithereens” ) to Dutch (“spook”).
He turned into a pidgin: when speaking in West Africa, Prince Charles expressed his gratitude for his good fortune in Nigerian pidgin: “God dun butta my bread”.
English is constantly changing shape and adapting itself, inventing new words every year (“selfie”, “Brexit”).
The greatest motivation for learning a language is simply necessity. Jean-Claude Juncker indeed speaks excellent English – but then, who is going to speak to him in his native Luxembourgish?
All languages have their particular charms and strengths, and I’m grateful that my efforts in German have introduced me to the uniquely German genius for the compound abstract noun, the most famous of which is “schadenfreude” – the pleasure of other people’s misfortune .
My favorite is “verschlimmbesserung” – the improvement that makes things worse.
There’s a lot of that.