Waste your life, learn to speak a foreign language
By Anthony Browne
We all know le problème: we are a nation of monoglots, linguistically challenged and so culturally inferior and economically constrained. Only one in four of us can claim to speak in foreign tongues, whereas our chic European chums babble away in a veritable Babel. European governments have lobbied, and the British Government has responded: from 2010 every primary school shall teach foreign. It’s a further good intention paving the road to ruin of our education system. We should shrug off our linguistic hang-ups, and instead of reinforcing language teaching, abolish it tout de suite.
Ordering everyone to learn another language is as pointless as ordering everyone to dig holes and fill them up. The reward for our ancestors persuading the rest of the world to speak English is that there is no need for us to learn what the rest of the world speaks.
All the time we spend learning another language, we should spend instead learning something useful — like economics, business studies, politics, law or computer science. If everyone in the country were forced to study economics as remorselessly as they are forced to learn French, then Britain would be in a far better state (true reform of the NHS would have happened decades ago).
Learning another language may make you feel clever, but it is no longer necessary for speaking with the foreigners you’re most likely to want to speak to: the educated and those working in tourism. Ever regretted you didn’t spend years learning German because of problems communicating with German labourers? I thought not.
I spent three hours a week for six years learning French, but it has proved a total waste of time. I have only needed it on a handful of occasions, and even then it was tourist French learnable in a couple of weeks. I have family friends in France, and have had many enjoyable conversations with our Gallic neighbours, but always in English. I have extended family in Norway and Denmark, but hardly speak either language because I never get the chance: all my Scandinavian relatives speak perfect English.
In contrast to all our continental cousins, Britain is part of the Anglosphere, by far the most powerful linguistic bloc in the world: the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand — as well as countries such as South Africa and India where English is the language of business and politics. Three of the G7 countries are anglophone.
Even outside the Anglosphere you can thrive with impunity as an English monoglot: you can work with no problems in the European Commission, the European Central Bank and countless multinational companies around the world. There is no obvious alternative language — French is only useful in a couple of developed countries and North Africa, and Spanish helps you on holiday in Cuba.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the smug satisfaction of mastering another tongue, but it is damaging to force it on the entire population. European children spend 15 per cent of their time learning foreign languages by the age of ten — imagine the advantages we would have if our kids did something more interesting in that time than learning how to ask for un café.
The Government is swimming against the tide of history: as more people learn English, the more pointless it is for Britons to learn another language. There are fewer and fewer people in the world worth speaking to who don’t speak English. Already the number of people studying languages at A level in Britain is plummeting.
The Government’s recent announcement that it is no longer compulsory to learn a foreign language up to GCSE is a welcome dose of reality. But it should go the whole hog, and stop forcing everyone to learn useless knowledge that they will never need, and hardly ever use.
From The Times
December 23, 2002
An interesting point of view. And if you think it's dated, here's another from 2010
Why waste time on a foreign language?