Despite being in such close proximity to it, growing up in England is drastically different from growing up in mainland Europe. Like every other continent, Europe has several countries and numerous languages, teaches English from an early age, and has so many close countries that you’re likely to be able to understand at least a little of your neighbouring country’s language.
England, however, doesn’t. The English language is not mutually intelligible with any other language even within the UK itself—we are not taught any Gaelic, nor Welsh, even though Scotland, Ireland and Wales are right around the corner. We’ve simply forgotten and erased the idea of other languages in England, and we’ve enforced this along most of Scotland, with only 60 institutions offering schooling in Gaelic over the entire country.
Not only does England teach very little about the languages around it, but it also puts very little emphasis on the importance of any languages, especially those from outside Western Europe.
Schools are required by law to offer an education in at least one language—usually French—but it’s also common to hear that “everywhere speaks English anyway.”
As expected, the teaching is usually of rather poor quality, and unless you commit several years to hard learning, usually you end up with an incredibly basic vocabulary and a small grasp on grammar.
This doesn’t even touch on the aspect of languages which use a different alphabet. Throughout my “state school” life, not once have we been taught about any language which doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, not even of somewhat close countries such as Russia.
Being part of Europe, and of the world as a whole, means we should be unafraid and encouraged to learn the languages around us, as their native speakers have been expected to do the same for us.
Plus, learning more about languages spoken in further away places, such as Arabic, will increase our appreciation for those who come to this country fluent in our language but face both xenophobia and racism when speaking their own.
Aside from our complete lack of knowledge of other languages, the worst thing about England’s attitude to language is the expectation that people migrating to England have perfect English upon arrival, while we have so little knowledge of their language even though British people living in or visiting other countries arrive with very little expectation of having to learn to speak their language. The amount of people from the U.K. who have moved and taken up permanent residence in Spain without even learning the language has led to the establishment of several Spanish newspapers written in English.
People migrating to England should not feel afraid that their English isn’t good enough, we should be ashamed that we have so little knowledge of, yet so much expectation of them to abandon, the language they grew up speaking.
As England and the U.K. become increasingly diverse, more importance should be assigned to understanding and respecting how colonial history has established English as a sort of lingua franca, causing people to go to great lengths to learn our language and fit in, even though we don’t do the same for them.