Despite the UK being one of the most multicultural societies in Europe, three-fifths of the people in Britain cannot speak a foreign language, according to a Europe-wide survey. In the rest of Europe, more than half the citizens speak at least one foreign language.
This dire picture is backed up by anecdotal evidence. When growing up in the UK, I was often regarded as a curiosity, and sometimes even a marvel, for being able to be speak Arabic fluently. In later life, I have noticed how Britons and Americans, with the exception of an impressively polyglottic minority, usually have the greatest difficulty of any nationality I know in acquiring another language, no matter how desperately they want to.
The reasons for this are myriad. Part of it is simple practicality and pragmatism.
In the contemporary world, it is a rare corner of the globe where nobody speaks English and in many places foreigners have a command of English that is at least as good as that of native speakers.
One of the most extraordinary examples of this was Joseph Conrad, who only learned to speak English fluently in his 20s, yet still managed to write some of the most striking and memorable fiction in modern English literature.
Beyond the practical, there is also the cultural. Although the days of a British imperial officer berating the natives for not being able to speak English “properly” are long gone, the fact that Britain had the largest empire in the world for centuries has created an intrinsic culture of what you might call linguistic privilege.
While the French have learned in recent decades to swallow their traditional linguistic chauvinism and a growing minority is embracing foreign languages, the British have been cushioned from this by America’s continued global dominance.
This cavalier culture of privilege and neglect permeates the education system.
When I was at school, most of my English schoolmates found foreign language classes to be too much hassle and considered learning another language to be about as useful as speaking in tongues.
Part of the problem was when and how languages were taught. We only started in secondary school and teachers generally made little effort to show us the relevance and beauty of learning a language, with the exception of one brief immersion day out we had in French.
Over the ensuing years, the situation does not seem to have altered much, despite the regular doom-laden warnings of the dire consequences of failure. Fewer than one in 10 English pupils aged 14-15 can use their first foreign language independently, research uncovered a few years ago.
Of course, in the globalised economy, this has serious economic ramifications. For instance, in multilingual Belgium, which also houses the headquarters of the European Union, job postings routinely ask for competence in at least three languages: Dutch, French and English.
Knowing one or more foreign languages enables you to savour the world with different tongues. It can help broaden your horizons, make you appreciate the dizzying diversity of the world, while driving home that, despite our differences, we share many remarkable similarities.
Naturally, multilingualism does not inoculate against xenophobia and bigotry, but it makes it harder. As fear of the “other” rises around the world, the importance of this cultural agility is only set to grow. In these increasingly troubled, divisive times, we need to tap into every ounce of sympathy and empathy we can muster.
This article has been exceprted from: ‘Multilingualism: Speaking the language of diversity’. Courtesy: Aljazeera.com