There is an underlying issue in England and around the world where Anglophones are a majority in a country: no one sees the value in learning other languages. Time and time again, I am faced with people who see no purpose in studying languages. “What is the point?” they often say, “English is the global language and attempting to learn any other properly is a waste of time.”
This behavior is justified to an extent. I emphasize the extent. English is more than an international language. That can be said of French, as it is a language that has planted its roots in many parts of the world, through colonization and so on. English, too, has achieved this vast graphical distribution, but has gone a step further. Being the native language of prominent Western world powers, like the United States and the United Kingdom, has helped its ambitions of being crowned as an international language. English is a lingua franca and has earned this status through not only being the dominating language in the fields of business and education, but also entertainment. Approximately 500,000 books are published each year in the English language, by the U.S. and U.K. TV shows, produced mainly in these two countries, are viewed in many different countries in the original language, especially in Europe.
Nonetheless, English is becoming less important in the scope of politics. Granted, it remains one of the five official languages of the United Nations and there were ongoing negotiations about giving English elevated status amongst the languages of the European Union; however, after the recent events of Brexit and our subsequent departure, English’s place in the European Union is becoming that much more precarious.
English, is and will be in the coming years, the de facto language people refer to, that is its very purpose as the global lingua franca. Some other notable lingua francas, which were predecessors to English, were Sanskrit, Farsi, Greek and Latin. Yes, Latin, the dead language, which would never be thought of by many of you as, at one point in the not too distant past, the bridge of communication in the Western World: one which continued to have wide currency as a language of higher learning long after it ceased to have native speakers. This is not a way of saying that English will die out, as Latin did, but it is important to note that no global language’s reign is permanent and unassailable.
Yet what not many of us understand is that, English is not as “global” as we are led to think. We imagine that everywhere we go, be it a cosmopolitan city in the Middle East, or an almost uninhabited village in South America, there will be a way to communicate, and most of the time, this will be through English. How wrong we are, if we regard our language in this way. Why should this mind-set be the way we think about English, this ubiquitous, universal key to, in our eyes, unlock all means of communication?
To put into perspective the frustration felt by many towards Anglophones, Chinese (Mandarin) has 1.2 billion world wide speakers, as opposed to the 328 million who speak English as their mother tongue. Both these figures are approximate and there is no denying that English is still very widely spoken, but there is a significant gap between the two, which we generally tend to ignore. Could you ever imagine a Chinese native going to every country it visits only speaking Mandarin? Most probably not. Not only do the majority of Anglophones go to foreign nations with little to no idea of how to talk with the locals and services there, yet they are additionally exasperated when the native can not communicate with them to the fullest extent of the word.
Only 25% of the world have some understanding of English, according to the British Council, spoken the most as a second-language in Europe. But we don’t see that. There is a serious problem with the ways languages are taught in schools here, students think languages are too difficult and not important, meaning there has been a serious decline in students taking languages at GCSE all the way up to university level.
It has not been expressed to them that languages lead you to different cultures, attitudes and ways of thinking. A recent study, conducted by the University of Lancaster, showed how the attitudes of English and German speakers differed from one language to the other. They were shown videos of movement, like a woman walking to her car. When asked to describe what they had seen, in English they said that, “the woman was walking,” but those who spoke German commented how “the woman walks towards her car.” The English speakers typically focused on the action, whereas their German counterparts assigned a goal to this action. This can be caused by the presence of the present participle: the ‘-ing’ words heavily used in English, meant more ambiguity was shown when expressing what was observed.
Additionally, many do not realize that languages are such an asset in the ever-changing world in which we live in today. There are numerous benefits to having a bilingual brain, whatever type of bilingual you are. Over half of Europe can speak more than one language, with 95% of the population in countries like Latvia being able to do so. The U.K. is steadily falling behind: 60% of our population can only speak English. Bilinguals have a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus on multi-tasking skills. Perhaps the most long-term benefit would be that due to the constant use of, and competition between, mental muscles when speaking two languages actively, bilingualism protects against brain diseases like dementia, by delaying the effects for as long as five years.
English is a very influential language, but this should not discourage our population from learning other languages. Each language is useful in different ways and there is no such thing as an “irrelevant language.” What we seem to forget is that languages are what connect people and they are the utmost powerful tools of expression. I encourage anyone, even if you lack a natural aptitude for languages, to try and learn the basics of one, for whatever reason. If you are going on holiday soon, why not learn common courtesies in that country or area’s native language? Was your favorite book originally written in another language? Would you like to be able to communicate more authentically with a family member whose first language isn’t English?
If you have not taken anything away from this article, then at least I leave you to think about this: what world would we be living in, if the only language existing was English and would that be utopian or hellish for you? Hopefully, it would be the latter.