With British students taking up fewer languages than their European counterparts, it is time we stopped being complacent
Millions study it; millions more teach it. English as a foreign language has become an extremely lucrative industry and rightly so. The geographical spread of former British colonies – remnants of an empire on which the sun famously never set – as well as America’s economic dominance and the need for a lingua franca have all conspired to assure English’s pre-eminent status. It is one of the United Nations’ six official tongues, in addition to being the prime language for aircraft communications, scientific reports and business transactions. It is vital for diplomats, entrepreneurs and journalists alike.
But this is no excuse for not learning other languages. In fact, three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English, despite its stronghold. This statistic becomes even starker when you realize that it’s just one among over 6,000 varieties that make up our linguistic diversity. This includes not only curriculum staples like French and Spanish, but less widely taught ones like Gujarati, Swahili and Arabic, the latter being important for our national security.
Multilingualism also has cultural benefits. Knowing another language provides a window on other civilisations that simply is not possible otherwise. It lets you delve into areas off the beaten tourist track. It enables you to read novels in ways a translation could not capture. It helps to frame the world from others’ perspective, not our own.
In political terms, language-learning is essential for effective foreign policy. It enables nations to build bridges – not destroy them – and reach out to distant lands far beyond their own borders. Languages are crucial if we want our children to inherit a more peaceful society with an internationally-driven ethos.
One university student has said: “If you are travelling the world, speaking the language is better than shouting.” But even if you don’t intend to make regular trips to far-flung corners, the vast array of tongues you might hear spoken on a single London bus shows the importance of languages for fostering our own sense of an inclusive national community. Global citizenship can be promoted at home as well as abroad by encouraging mutual understanding between host and immigrant populations, through learning each other’s languages.
Studying other languages might help the environment too: research shows linguistic diversity and biodiversity are strongly correlated. Evidence even suggests that the relationship might be causal. By 2100 we could lose nearly half of the planet’s languages. This would be disastrous not only for our ecosystems, but also our human heritage.
The UK Subject Centre for Languages has published a list of some 700 reasons to study languages, of which the above is a small sample. But perhaps most tellingly of all, the German writer Goethe pointed out: “Those who know nothing of a foreign language know nothing of their own.” It’s time we put languages back on the agenda.
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