Why English speakers shouldn’t give up foreign languages


ASTON UNIVERSITY in Birmingham closes the department which teaches languages ​​and translation. The University of Sheffield is accused of sending its language students to stupid courses to save money. Fewer pupils in UK schools are taking foreign language exams (a drop in French, the most popular choice, explains most of the drop). A cursory analysis might see this trend as a nationalist, populist and post-Brexit mindset at work. But it has been gathering for a long time, not just in Britain but in America, and not just in the days of Brexit and Trump, but long before them.

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The tragic attack on America on September 11, 2001 had a positive consequence. Many Americans realized how intertwined their lives were with those of people around the world and found that they often did not understand the hopes and fears of their counterparts. Some have patriotically applied to join the diplomatic and intelligence services; some swotty guys have resolved to learn foreign languages. The number of students studying Arabic at university has skyrocketed (albeit from a very low base). But the country’s attention has since strayed. The most recent research in America by the Modern Language Association found a 9.2% drop in college-level foreign language course enrollment between 2013 and 2016.

Much more than excessive politics, the probable culprit of all this is the worldwide rise of English. Exchange with Europeans of different ages and a three-generation model emerges. If they speak English at all, the older ones do so with heavy accents and grammatical errors. Middle-aged people, especially in places like Scandinavia or the Netherlands, have light accents and just mangle the odd idiom. Young people often shame their elders. They speak in American accents that could have been taken from “Friends” – except they didn’t take them from something as primitive as an old-fashioned television. Time spent on YouTube, or playing live with others while talking trash in English, has made it seem less of a foreign language than one of their own.

All of this might naturally lead young people in English-speaking countries to wonder why they should bother learning French or Spanish in school. Why endure the arduous middle phase of learning a language – when you have some knowledge but no experience – if the awkward mess that comes out of your mouth is likely to be met with a response in impeccable English? True mastery is precious, as anyone who has worked hard to achieve it will proudly attest. But this half-knowledge, a typical result of many courses, seems increasingly redundant.

Yet there are several good reasons to persist in language learning in schools and universities. First, anyone considering moving to another country, or who regularly interacts with another country for work or otherwise, still benefits immensely from almost any familiarity with its language. There’s no way to really get to know a place without being able to chat or watch some TV. (Anglophones who doubt this should imagine understanding their country without any knowledge of English.) Second, even if your contact with the culture in question is only occasional, your efforts to use its language will be highly appreciated, at least by older residents, who might otherwise frown on you assuming everyone is happy to speak English.

Foreign languages ​​also have their own intellectual value, even if you have never set foot in the country concerned. Latin and Greek have for centuries been considered a training for the mind; the same goes for immersion in any foreign language. This is how many people acquire the formal knowledge of grammar that they have. And the effort it takes to speak in a foreign language makes you slow down and think about what you’re saying and why. Researchers have even found that people make more rational decisions when speaking another language.

Beyond individual benefits, 21st century economies still need people who can operate fluently abroad. Just as universal math education creates a large pool of potential engineers, so does widespread language education for business executives, diplomats, soldiers, and spies. Speaking another language is not just a courtesy to others. Much of the benefits still accrue to those who put in the work and the companies that support them. Even though English continues to rise, English-speaking countries that cut their foreign language budgets may find themselves at a loss for words.

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Dictionary blues”


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