In our second blog we discuss the role that ‘language learning’ plays in different countries in Europe and in the US. This is mainly done by commenting on several news paper articles.
Attitudes towards the learning of foreign languages can be quite ambivalent. Some people have a passion for languages, others see foreign languages as an obstacle. Some countries, like the Netherlands, depend and rely on their language skills for their international business. They focus a lot on learning English and tend more and more to ‘forget’ about the languages of their directly neighbouring countries. Other countries, that often have a ‘monolingual tradition’, such as the United Kingdom and the United States don’t really feel the need to stimulate foreign language learning, as others speak their language anyway (see also: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/aug/24/who-still-wants-learn-languages showing the decline of foreign language learning in the UK).
Yet a recent survey finds that “Americans fear that lack of multilingual skills may cost them high-paying U.S. jobs” ( http://www.marketwatch.com/story/rosetta-stone-survey-finds-americans-fear-lack-of-multilingual-skills-may-cost-them-high-paying-us-jobs-2010-09-13?reflink=MW_news_stmp ).
This might seem like a paradox. The United States is the best example of a country that was built on immigration and therefore (and because of its reputation of ‘the promised land’) traditionally has a large number of inhabitants who speak another language as their mother tongue, mainly Spanish. What both above mentioned articles also show is the fact that relying on others to adapt to you – by learning your language – can give them an advantage over you and that learning languages is beneficial even if your native language is a very common language.
The reality, as shown, however is that many native speakers of English don’t speak a foreign language, whereas many non-native speakers use the language as a new ‘lingua franca’ for the Western world.
According to a late survey, English is the first foreign language studied in secondary schools in Europe. This is mostly to the detriment of French and German. Spanish, often regarded as being an exotic but easy language to learn and spoken in many parts of the world, is on the rise in some countries’ secondary schools.
Whereas other Europeans seem keen on learning English, the English themselves study foreign languages less and less, again with Spanish (and truly exotic languages such as Chinese and Japanese) being somewhat of an exception. One consequence of that is a growing lack of qualified translators and interpreters to translate into the English language.
At first sight the British attitude towards language learning doesn’t seem strange but rather a logical consequence of the strong position the English language holds in Europe and especially in the EU. This position is so strong that a Flemish minister even proposed to use English as the ‘common European language’ and hence as the only official working language in EU institutions ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/8028109/Flemish-speaking-Belgian-minister-wants-English-to-be-Europes-common-language.html ).
His remark clearly has to be seen in the light of the Belgian language quarrels. Yet it perfectly shows the European dilemma: on the one hand Europeans are proud of their cultural and linguistic diversity – it is what makes Europe Europe – but on the other they are struggling to deal with these differences. The use of a ‘lingua franca’ then seems like a practical measure. Unofficially English already plays that role. Paradoxically the British, in their own country, seem to profit less from their own language than multilingual foreigners who speak English at a high level. On the continent however, British are often found in top positions of multinational companies using English as their corporate language.
The last article shows that Spanish will probably be the biggest language in terms of the number of native speakers by the second half of the century: http://www.lavozdegalicia.es/sociedad/2010/07/27/0003_8633835.htm
Will Spanish also take over the role of ‘lingua franca’ of the world then? The future will tell …
Posted by Paul Hölsgens for Euregio Language Services