BBC: A Point of View

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 9 13:23:48 UTC 2006

By Lisa Jardine

The British have never had much of a taste for learning foreign languages
and as English becomes Europe's lingua franca, that stubbornness is
starting to pay off. But if everyone else can speak English, what does
that mean for our sense of identity?  On a train from Brussels to Gent in
Belgium this week, the ticket inspector asked me in English where I was
getting off. "Ghent [Chent]" I answered, anxious to show that I was
willing to make an effort with Belgian pronunciation, and showing off, I
suppose, for the benefit of the young colleagues travelling to the
Anglo-Dutch history conference with me.  He responded with a torrent of
incomprehensible Flemish. "Sorry", I said in some embarrassment, "I mean
'Gent'". He lapsed immediately into flawless English. Which was just as
well, since the information he was trying to give us was that in order to
leave the train at Gent, we had to be travelling in the front four
carriages of the train.  As we were to discover during our three-day stay,
the Belgians and the Dutch move effortlessly between Dutch (or Flemish as
the Belgians would prefer), French and English. They are competent
German-speakers, and not averse to trying their hand at Italian and
Spanish. In the Low Countries you are greeted fearlessly, with cheerful
attention and direct eye-contact. In whatever language you speak to them,
they are pretty sure they will be able to understand and respond

To my twenty-something-year-old British companions this felt truly
European. They expressed delight, not only at the shared, effortless means
of communication, but also at the extraordinary similarities in interests
and outlook between themselves and the young Dutch and Belgian historians
at the conference. They all shopped at cheap-and-cheerful clothing stores
like Hennes and Zara; they spent their leisure time in the same pursuits,
downloading music, going to the movies... and, it turned out, digging
their allotments. In the week leading up to Europe Day [9 May] this all
sounds wonderfully optimistic. The founding charter of the European Union
extolled the virtues of a multilingual community, of shared values and
mutual respect among the member states. The new, ill-fated draft
constitution, voted into oblivion last year, first by the French and then
by the Dutch themselves, reaffirmed those commitments.  But while the rest
of Europe embraces the variety of European languages, Britain seems bent
on becoming determinedly monolingual. A recent survey for the European
Commission revealed that two out of three Britons are unable to speak a
language other than English. The number of students studying A-level
French has dropped by two thirds over the past 10 years.

Britons believe that there is really no need for them to learn any other
European language, when in the end everyone aspires to speak theirs. So
does it matter that the British appear to have decided that they need no
second European language? Personally, I think it does. I am of immigrant
stock; my grandparents arrived here from Poland and Latvia as economic
migrants in the 1910s. As children, both my parents spoke languages other
than English at home. Both grew up to speak flawless English themselves.
The story my father used to tell us was that as a recent arrival from
Poland, aged 12, he took a bus from his home to the Whitechapel library
(sadly closed in 2005), and there borrowed two books:  Frederick Marryat's
1850s adventure classics, Masterman Ready and Midshipman Easy.  We used to
tease him that Captain Marryat's 19th Century nautical prose had helped
form my father's elegantly precise and slightly mannered way of speaking

My sisters and I were raised in a home in which only English was spoken,
but my parents insisted that we acquire a second language too. They were
convinced that learning an unfamiliar language makes one conscious of the
mechanics of language-speaking, how language works as the bridge between
us and those around us. With a second language a speaker becomes aware of
the way the words they use shape their capacity to think; the way choices
of words and modes of expression nuance our feelings and enhance our
imagination. Of course, significant numbers of those living in Britain
today do speak more than one language. The children of recent immigrants
speak one language at home and another at school just as my parents did.
Where they spoke Polish or Yiddish, these children speak Bengali or Hindi.
At Westminster City School in inner-city London, where my own son went to
school almost half [49%] of the 750 boys speak English as what Ofsted
calls an "additional language". Are these, then, potentially the flexible,
outward looking members of our community who will be able to keep pace
with the multilingual inhabitants of mainland Europe?

Mind you, although the average British teenager seems confident that
English will enable them to get by anywhere, the EU administration is
equally clear that no one language ought to be allowed to dominate.
European Union documentation still refuses to acknowledge the fact that
English has become Europe's lingua franca, insisting that the languages of
all the member states weigh equally.  To the obvious question, "Why not
adopt a single language for business?", posed on an official website, the
answer given is categorical: There is no obvious language to choose. The
EU language with the largest number of native speakers is German; the
languages with the largest number of native speakers worldwide are Spanish
and Portuguese; French is one of the official languages of three Member
States (France, Belgium and Luxembourg). As for English: "Although it is
the most widely known language, recent surveys show that fewer than half
the EU population have any usable knowledge of it." Wishful thinking, I'm
afraid. For ease of communication among the enlarged membership, for
everyday business and exchange of information, English will inevitably be

This is not the first time that Europe has embraced a lingua franca. At
the beginning of the 16th Century, Latin was the language of choice for
educated Europeans, who reserved their national vernaculars for commerce
and the domestic sphere. The great linguist, theologian, author and
educator Erasmus of Rotterdam - a favourite Renaissance figure of mine -
presided over a pan-European educational system designed to instil good,
elegant Latin into all citizens. In classroom textbooks and scholarly
editions he argued that the language of ancient Rome contained within it
the seeds of universal human values and an international ethic of
compassion and tolerance. Erasmus's textbook, On Copious Speaking and
Writing, which went into dozens of editions, taught the student how to say
"thank you for your letter" in 150 different, equally elegant ways. By
mastering Latin, Erasmus maintained, anyone could become a European.

But around 1515 Erasmus began to identify himself, in the prefaces and
introductions to his works, as a Dutchman - as someone whose ideas and
values were rooted in the northern Netherlands. And he did so because he
had begun to realise that it is not enough to identify with the shared
values of Europe as a whole. Each individual still needed a sense of
belonging to a smaller group, with whose customs and way of life they
could identify. We cannot be sure what changed Erasmus's mind, but it
marked the beginning of the rise of the European vernaculars, the
emergence of the modern nation state, and the demise of Latin.  Watching
the easy mingling of the young British, Belgian and Dutch at my conference
this week it was clear to me that they are all now confidently European in
their habits and outlook. So perhaps I have reluctantly to concede that it
may not be necessary for the British, who have the good fortune to speak
the European lingua franca as their mother tongue, to be made to learn a
second language. They can do alright without it, and after all, they can
learn any specified language later, as the need arises. But if that is the
case, then the pressure on English as our mother tongue becomes intense.
Unlike our Belgian and Dutch neighbours, it is the only language we have
in which to learn to understand ourselves and others. If (as Erasmus
thought) our emotional bearings are rooted locally, in the language of the
place we call "home", then we are going to have to turn our attention
fully and energetically towards English as the source and historical
origin of understanding for the British Isles.

In its rich literature and history, in the nuanced subtleties of its
meaning, must lie our own peculiar sense of belonging. For us, English is
far more than the 21st Century European lingua franca. It is the bedrock
upon which our sense of what it is to be British is built.
Published: 2006/05/09 11:00:23 GMT

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