Monday 17 June 2019

It's not that we're bad at languages, it's that we suffer from speaking English

Denmark's Crown Princess Mary holds her new daughter Princess Isabella Henrietta Ingrid Margarite after the christening ceremony in Fredensborg. Photo: Reuters.
Denmark's Crown Princess Mary holds her new daughter Princess Isabella Henrietta Ingrid Margarite after the christening ceremony in Fredensborg. Photo: Reuters.
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Are the Irish lamentably bad at learning foreign languages? Senator Ronan Mullen has been castigating Education Minister Ruairi Quinn for failing to promote more language skills in Irish schools and colleges. The Senator says that there is a "serious lack of language skills in the Irish workforce".

He claims that when an international employer was recruiting staff in Ireland, they had to bring in 500 employees from overseas to fill job vacancies because the Irish workforce just didn't have the necessary language skills.

If this is the case, how can we improve matters? I consulted an award-winning linguist and translator for some tips on language-learning skills.

Eyvor Fogarty is a Scotswoman who is the Chairman of the International Federation of Translators, and holder of a Pushkin Gold Medal for translation. She is an expert in Russian and Hungarian – a notoriously difficult language – and also speaks French, some Polish and is acquiring German.

Eyvor doesn't think the British and Irish are necessarily bad at languages. "It's just we suffer from speaking English," she says. "Maybe we're too polite about it. When we address someone in a foreign language, they often answer in English because they want to practice their English. Instead, we should persist in our broken French, German or Spanish."

English, she says, is a "tolerant language" – people can stumble through it and make themselves understood.

Other languages have a higher threshold for correct speaking and understanding – what with masculine and feminine genders, adjectives which have to agree with the noun, and declensions according to nominative, accusative, genitive, etc (Declensions make Irish a difficult language to speak well in my experience. When do you say "An Uachtaran" and when "An t-Uachtaran"? It depends on the grammatical case. Whereas in English the word President never alters).

Thus Anglophones – native English speakers, of whom there are now 1.2 billion world-wide – tend to feel discouraged about attempting to speak other languages. But trying is what we should do!

If there is a fall in language skills among English-speakers, it is partly down to the success of English, which is sometimes called "Globish", says Eyvor (whose husband, Michael, is from a Cork family.)

Before 1945 many people, such as teachers and civil servants, learned French and German, she points out. People learned some Latin at school, and even Greek. In Catholic countries, everyone had some familiarity with Latin, the church language. High society everywhere spoke French.

But that changed. Latin and Greek were dropped for all but specialised scholars, and English advanced universally. In the early years of the European Union, French (and German) dominated among the Brussels and Strasbourg officials. But as the EU went from 6 to 28, English became more dominant, especially with the entry of the Scandinavians.

Yet, says Eyvor, who is an energetic 63 and travels widely in her linguistic role, English is still gaining ground in eastern central Europe. The Czech Republic is largely English-speaking. The Romanians, who share a Latin basis with French, are now tending to speak more English, especially among the younger generation. The Hungarians, who traditionally had German as a first foreign language – because of the connection with Austria – are now favouring English.

The older generation of Hungarians were taught Russian at school, but many of them left school unable to speak it because of "psychological resistance". They loathed Soviet dominance – an interesting example of the role of psychology in language-learning.

So is it really the spread of English which acts as a disincentive to master other languages? That is a plausible excuse. But it is not an insurmountable barrier, and if we are aware of the problem it might be easier to tackle.

If you make up your mind to learn a language, you can master it. Princess Mary of Denmark is an encouraging illustration. She's an Australian from Tasmania who married Crown Prince Frederik in 2004. She didn't know any Danish, but set her mind to acquiring the language. She is now a fluent speaker.

Experienced linguists say that the first thing you must do when learning a language is be prepared to make a fool of yourself.

"Don't be afraid to be put down," says Eyvor. "Persist. Listen. And learn words as part of a phrase: 'On the bus.' 'In the room'. 'Pass the salt'." Don't nurse a complex about being bad at languages, just do it!

It is often observed that Africans are brilliant linguists. They'll speak two or three tribal languages even before they embark on a European tongue. And when they learn English, French or Spanish, African people will usually speak these European languages without making grammatical errors. Why is this, and can we learn from the African experience?

Eyvor says that people who come from an oral tradition make the best translators and interpreters, because their brains are adapted to absorbing words. It could be that the oral storytelling traditions, still strong in Africa, hone linguistic ability.

Language skills are useful in the field of employment. But it's worth adding that learning a language is rewarding, interesting and even fun too. And it's great memory training for the old grey matter. Tweet: @MaryKenny4

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