Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem.
You live a new life for every new language you speak.
If you know only one language, you live only once.
For many people around the world, their quest to learn English is one of the main things that spurs them on in life. Be it to get a better job, to be able to communicate when abroad, to be able to read more sites on the internet or just to pass the time, English is without doubt a worldwide phenomenon.
Yet foreigners’ passion for English is far from reflected in the fat, lazy, drunken mouths of the English themselves. Not only are English people who can speak a foreign language in the minority, but the number of English people who can speak their own language properly is also declining.
First and foremost is definitely spelling, or as most English people would write “definately” spelling. In reality, the situation is much worse than the odd mistake with a vowel here and there. Just take a look at this 11-year old’s exam answer, published in The Times newspaper:
“If he wasent doing enthing els heel help his uncle Herry at the funfair during the day. And had stoody at nigh on other thing he did was invent new rides.”
Furthermore this problem is not just confined to youngsters. Ken Smith, senior lecturer at Buckinghamshire New University, is confronted by so many spelling mistakes that he thinks we should “simply give everyone a break and accept these variant spellings”.
Yet it’s this kind of defeatist attitude that leaves England (and Britain as a whole) lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of uptake of foreign languages. As George Orwell wrote in his landmark essay “Politics and the English Language”:
“An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.”
Shockingly, Britain is the only place in Europe where it is not compulsory to study a foreign language in school. And while in most countries students learn foreign languages from the age of seven to 18, in Britain they only study from 11 to 16, if at all.
The European Commission sees foreign language skills as being “among the key competences for lifelong learning”, and its Barcelona objective has set out the aim of enabling European citizens to communicate in two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
While the Czech Republic and Italy have introduced reforms and now comply with this goal, Britain shows no sign of following suit. Recent figures from Eurydice, the information network on education in Europe, show that British students spend by far the least amount of time spent on learning foreign languages in Europe. The network’s “Key Data on Teaching Languages at school in Europe” shows that Britain is also one of the few places where figures haven’t increased on 1994 levels.
In Portugal, where compulsory language learning begins in the first or second year of primary education, British music and subtitled British TV abound. This kind of exposure breeds an enthusiasm for English that the English themselves are incapable of developing, at least en masse, for another language or culture.
Foreign language films and music are virtual non-entities on British TV and radio, where the only dishes on the menu are British or American. The BBC do still air some foreign films and music, but these are on non-mainstream TV channels and radio stations at times when most people are in bed.
This lack of access to foreign languages only augments the problem the British have with learning foreign tongues. As a recent EU report on multilingualism stated: “The media can…be a great source of informal language learning through ‘edutainment’ and subtitled films.”
But why should the English care about learning foreign languages? 90% of all European pupils study English at some point, so if everyone else can speak English, why not let them?
To be brazenly practical, according to a report published by the Commission of the European Communities earlier this year a shortage of foreign language skills can drastically affect a country’s economy:
“11% of exporting EU SMEs [small and medium enterprises] may be losing business because of language barriers. Although English has a leading role as the business language of the world, it is other languages that will provide EU companies with a competitive edge and allow them to conquer new markets.”
So England is digging itself further into the economic hole that it current finds itself in, with the Euro and the Pound rapidly approaching an equal value.
To be less practical, I have only to refer to the proverb at the start of this article.
“If you know only one language, you live only once.”
Until three years ago I spoke only English and a smattering of French. Since then I have lived in Poland, Russia and now Portugal and learnt to speak the languages of these countries to varying degrees.
As a result I have discovered that the ability to speak another language, even if cack-handedly, can open doors both literal and mental. Languages have made me new friends, taken me to places I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get to (most memorably the site of a former Gulag) and allowed me to read things in other languages and, to some extent, experience that culture’s way of thinking.
Yet this is not just a personal experience, as there exists a phenomenon known as “frame shifting”, according to which people are said to switch between different ways of interpreting events and feelings according to the language it is spoken in. New Scientist magazine recently reported on a US study of bilingual Hispanic women which found that women who were actively involved in both English and Spanish speaking cultures interpreted the same TV advertisements differently, depending on whether they were shown in English or Spanish.
Joanna Moszczynska, a University of Warsaw student currently studying in Lisbon as part of the ERASMUS programme, speaks five languages and agrees with the theory of frame shifting: “Some languages are richer in expressing certain feelings, others have more words to describe certain objects or phenomena. Thus we can develop to a certain point a different personality. Languages like Portuguese, Spanish or Italian are very melodic and vivid, and foreigners who learn those languages often copy the native speakers in their behaviour and modes of expression.”
Nelson Mandela expressed another aspect of frame-shifting when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
But translator and English teacher Annabel Browne says that knowing another language isn’t enough. According to her it’s essential to have an insight into a country’s culture in order to fully understand its language: “Lots of things are lost in translation. It isn't just what they say it is how they say it and why. Lots of things are cultural and not just words.
“When you speak a foreign language, rather than everything being translated back into your own language, which means making things English or viewing things from an English point of view, you can see directly into their way of thinking through their words and expressions and cultural references.”
A concrete example she gives is that while for English people “jealousy” is a negative word and concept, Italians view it otherwise. For them, being jealous of friends or family is a way of expressing how proud they are of them.
So is the Czech proverb true? If you know only one language do you really only live once?
According to Browne the answer is yes: “When I speak Italian I am much more assertive and aggressive, much more outspoken and blunt. I feel when I speak Italian I don't have to be polite and British.”
So why don’t the English grab this chance of a second life? Well, the good news is that maybe they are slowly realising that they should…with the help of Polish women.
Moszczynka, herself a Pole, says: “Knowledge of foreign languages has exposed me to experiences I may never otherwise have had and has helped me to explore things unavailable in my native language.” It seems that many British men, as is their wont, are taking this to a very literal level, using the Polish language to expose themselves to and explore Polish women!
At least this is something that the organisers of a new Polish language course in Cardiff, Wales found out when they experienced a huge demand for their course from men who wanted to learn the language of their new Polish girlfriends.
Around a million Polish citizens have arrived in the UK since 2004 and maybe they have shed light on something that the British Government should consider before the European Commission carries out its review of multilingualism in member states in 2012. The only way to a fat, lazy, drunken English man’s head is through his pants.