Saturday 16 December 2017

We speak English, so not everyone needs to learn another language

In my opinion... Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams
Kevin Williams

A recent policy document from the Department of Education and Skills rehearses the wishful thinking about teaching foreign languages that has been in the public domain for decades. No area of the school curriculum stands in more need of clarity and nuance. It is appropriate to qualify the usefulness for business purposes of language learning and to affirm its educational value. It is far less important for English-speakers than others to learn different languages. As the Latin of today, English is the language of power of our times.

There must be many Irish people like me who have been frustrated by foreigners who insist on trying to use their attempts at English on us when we try to speak their language abroad.

This is not to deny that language competence can be important. There is everything to be said for teaching foreign languages to those who need to do business outside the Anglophone world. Mistakes made by advertisers selling goods and services abroad show that it is necessary to be aware of how expressions will be understood in new linguistic contexts. The name 'Roc' for an anti-ageing cream prompts a smile from Irish speakers because the word means 'wrinkle' in Irish. Trying to market the Nova car in the Spanish-speaking world was misguided, because no va means 'it doesn't go'. A famous gaffe was the attempt to translate 'Come alive with the Pepsi generation' into Chinese - it was represented as 'Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave'.

Yet this does not make a satisfactory case for teaching foreign languages in schools. Even if it were possible to determine in advance which language young people should learn, it would be wasteful of resources to teach a foreign language to all that may be of value only to a few.

Still, there are some sound educational reasons for teaching languages. Research draws attention to cognitive benefits of knowing other languages and to their role in keeping the mind active and in inhibiting the onset of dementia in later life.

Here, though, I wish to concentrate on language learning as a form of civic and social education. A language can communicate part of the peculiar psychological orientation of a speech community. For example, the common English terms 'challenge/challenging' are difficult to translate into French and German. This is due to the association of the expressions with American notions of life as a series of challenges to be met and overcome. Other cultures do not share this conception of life.

Cultural mind-set is embedded in all languages, including Irish. Like Arabic, Irish does not mark the distinction expressed in the forms tu/vous, du/sie and equivalent forms in other languages. Tú is used when addressing another individual, without regard for rank or degree of acquaintance. This reflects something of a characteristically Irish spirit of informality and sociability.

And, of course, all languages express something of the spirit of the speech community where they are used. Consider, for example, how difficult it would be to find single word equivalents in other languages for the terms chic, gemütlich, gezellig, hwyl, omerta, machismo, or chutzpah. In these French, German, Dutch, Welsh, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish/Hebrew words we find articulated something of the unique cultural psychology of the people who speak the language in question.

Teaching languages also has the potential to alert learners to gender bias in language. For example, there is bias in favour of the masculine gender in French. If one boy joins a class of 25 girls, masculine form is used when referring to the group. My concern to use gender-neutral language seems less widely shared among colleagues in France than among those in the English-speaking world. Uttering the actual unfamiliar sounds of another language is also a venture in outreach to others. It is humbling for native-speakers of English to attempt to communicate in another language. It alerts them to what it is like for those who are forced to use English, and, indeed, for those who because of disability have difficulty in communicating.

It is time, however, to cease the exaggeration about the necessity for us to know other languages to get by in a world that is dominated by English. But this should not obscure the enrichment benefits of foreign language education.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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