It is a warm, September afternoon in the Cișmigiu Gardens in Bucharest. You are sitting on a bench under the trees, watching people stroll, row on the lake, play backgammon outside a nearby café. From all around comes the music of the street: repartee and laughter in Romanian, Aromanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Greek, here and there some German, French, even Russian. You feel at home among these familiar languages, how they intermingle almost seamlessly.
Then suddenly, there it is on the breeze: a whiff of entitlement comes floating through the park. The harmony is shattered. What else could it be but English voices?
It is often said that English is the international language. This claim, for some almost a dogma, dates back to when there were essentially only five versions of English: British, American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand. This cosy, extended family forms the basis of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Anglosphere’, with its connotations of clubbable white men bestriding a globe which was then largely coloured pink; a club that no longer exists and probably never did.
Times have changed. There now seems to be a variant of English for every country in the world, whose users believe to be the one, true version, eagerly correcting others – including native speakers – whose grammar, pronunciation and vernacular they judge to be defective. They are not-infrequently encouraged in this pedagogic enterprise by native speakers, particularly the British, who absorb these new dialects into their everyday conversation. One only has to listen in a public space to realise how extensively these different patois have spread, becoming a many-headed hegemony.
English is now a citizen of nowhere; a language, almost a Volapük, spoken in every gutter in the world. Not dissimilarly to the public services, it has been sold off to the highest bidder: so much for taking back control. Rather than work itself into a frenzy about imaginary swarms of immigrants, perhaps the UK – notably the English – should reassert control over its linguistic borders, and reaffirm what the French refer to, with an admiration normally reserved for ‘la langue de Molière’, as ‘the language of Shakespeare’.
So in a very real sense, English has become too global for its own good, acquiring the unattractive sobriquet of ‘globish’, which sounds like a rare and fatal disease contracted by spending long periods in a dark, circular cave from which there is no escape. Yet the British have only their monolingual mindset to blame for this misappropriation of their mother tongue. For centuries they have travelled the world, their luggage full of their increasingly threadbare culture, speaking to (and often shouting at) everyone in English, assuming they will understand and comply. What wilful ignorance goes to another country and forces its inhabitants to speak the language of their visitor? The premise seems to be that English, a West Germanic language, is a form of ‘benchmark’. But a benchmark of what?
It cannot be denied, of course, that English has become a species of lingua franca, particularly for international institutions. Yet anyone who has been in meetings attended by people of different nationalities will know that this is not necessarily an advantage. In such situations, English is often used despite the fact that native speakers are in a minority; the resentment this causes can be palpable, particularly if the sole British or American attendee speaks too quickly, or uses obscure colloquialisms that are unintelligible to foreign colleagues who speak a purer form of English, filtered through comprehensive knowledge of their own and probably several other languages, none of which the Briton or American speaks. In April 2018, the French ambassador to the EU walked out of a meeting in protest because English was being used, despite the fact that everyone present was a French speaker.
The case of French is worth noting. Although once the language of European courtiers, and to an extent still the parlance of diplomacy, it has retained a higher level of linguistic purity and integrity than English by remaining within its geographical and cultural borders – the Francophonie of art, raison and the intellect; policed, of course, by the uncompromising Académie Française, from which there is much to learn – at least linguistically. For, while many French people lament the often brutish domination of English and their country’s perceived loss of international influence (Emmanuel Macron has publicly expressed a desire for French to be more widely spoken), they are unlikely to relish hearing their beloved native tongue abused by the rest of the world; as yet, French has no word for ‘globish’ – they just say … globish.
Over the past thirty years the relentless pace of globalisation has seen a concomitant rise in affordable travel, with millions now able to visit foreign countries that would once have been beyond their reach. Paradoxically, – in Britain, at least – there has not been a parallel or sustained rise in the number of schoolchildren learning foreign languages; in fact, recent trends show a decline, particularly in State schools. Although the figures for Independent schools have remained higher, with an increase in Mandarin and Russian, the overall trend appears to be down.
The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex. Are native English speakers responding to the increased, global use of English by not bothering to learn foreign languages, assuming more than ever that they will be understood everywhere? Or is this part of the phenomenon of misplaced, nostalgic nationalism, even xenophobia, which is now evident in Britain and the USA, along with many other countries? One of the numerous apocryphal tales to emerge from the EU referendum was that of a man who, when asked why he voted to leave, said it was because his daughter was turned down for a job in favour of someone who spoke Polish. ‘How can she compete with that?’ he complained.
Like it or not, the answer is that young people in the UK, who have grown up as EU citizens with the corresponding aspirations, advantages and challenges, compete for well-paid jobs with their continental peers, who routinely speak two or more foreign languages, often to professional level.
Those who have learnt foreign languages, particularly from an early age (it was once, and in places still is common to begin Latin at the age of seven), regard it as a seminal experience that laid the foundations of a lifelong love of language, which has the added benefit of improving one’s understanding of English. To master one or more inflected languages, with their genders, cases, tenses and often Byzantine grammatical rules, brings into focus the overlooked role of the subjunctive and pluperfect tenses, or the genitive, dative and vocative cases in English, which, like a palimpsest, lie hidden beneath everyday conversation.
Knowledge of other languages opens our eyes, our minds, fostering a cultural acuity that grows with each new language acquired. The study of Latin and Greek teaches us about our democracies’ origins, while European languages remind us of our intertwined history, a Gordian knot that no ‘exit’, however sharp, can sever. From Arabic, Hebrew and other languages of the Middle East we discover that their culture and religion are not the ‘Other’ that some like to claim, but have left an indelible imprint on our continent.
In short, speaking foreign languages removes barriers, especially at a time when troglodytes are frantically re-erecting them. Subtly but sometimes also forcefully they remind us, in ways that religion should but often fails to do, of all we have in common; the things which connect us. Multilingualism empowers individuals and transforms societies; anyone who has helped migrants integrate, interpreted at international forums, or simply talked in five or six languages to the other habitués of a Central European coffee house will know how exhilarating yet perfectly natural this can be.
We are often told that it is an advantage, indeed a privilege, to speak English. This is doubtful, and can lead to linguistic and cultural myopia; the most that could be said is that it is useful for those for whom it is not their mother tongue. But native speakers who do not have a working knowledge of at least one foreign language risk imprisoning themselves in their own culture, and remain reliant on others speaking English in order to communicate. This not only puts them in an inferior position, both socially and economically, it leaves them impoverished. Openness to others, on the other hand, brings riches.
Nor is the global pre-eminence of English guaranteed. By 2050 it is predicted that the USA, where 53 million people already speak Spanish as a mother tongue or bilingually, will be the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, surpassing Mexico. The Hispanic population of America now controls a large proportion of the economy. In Britain, the children of former immigrants hold prominent positions.
It should be remembered that Latin, often dismissed by monoglots as ‘dead’, was once the language of the known world. Veni, vidi, vici …