It’s always been my dream to speak foreign languages: I remember once swearing that, during my lifetime, I would be able to speak the ‘romance’ languages – Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese (excluding Romanian) – all fluently. Coming to Italy for a year, I certainly thought that one of those could be ticked off the list. But, during my struggle to compete in Italian classes filled with talented European linguists, it’s becoming more and more clear how difficult a challenge I have set myself.
I am, however, going to go out on a whim and claim this: that the challenge is even more difficult because I am English. And, more importantly, that this is a fault of our society and a credit to the European mainland.
It is, in short, a privilege to take part in an Erasmus exchange and almost always to be understood because the language of communication is my own. You can put this down to our past and to our present: the spread of English with its Empire, or the current popularity of Ed Sheeran and Peaky Blinders. Whether they want to or have to, the result is the same: citizens of European, and other, countries learn English, and they learn it well.
It is my privilege, therefore, to be able to express myself accurately amongst a group of people who, of course, have to try that little bit harder to get their thoughts across. Learning Italian, I know only too well the frustration of knowing exactly what I want to say, but just not having the tools to express it in the way that I would like – for example, using a word that doesn’t mean what I want, simply because it means saying something. My European friends, it must be said, speak English brilliantly; but there’s no doubt that, at times, they wish that they could express themselves in their own languages, which, supporting their cultures and having defined their past emotional experiences, have far more power to communicate the thoughts inside their heads than my language does.
At times, then, the fact that we speak English as a group is great for me. I bet that I come across as more funny than usual (or, just funny), more intelligent and more empathetic than I do in the UK because the speed and accuracy with which my expression comes are that bit quicker and, well, accurate (perhaps not, then…). To me, though, as such an admirer of the linguistic skills that my friends have picked up, this linguistic privilege has as many negative undertones as it does benefits.
Firstly, and most obviously, it means that we English do not try to speak other languages. I’ve heard the compliment many a time – ‘Wow, you are English and have learnt some foreign languages, that’s great! – but this compliment never fails to fill me with embarrassment. ‘Linguistic skills’ doesn’t mean ‘being able to speak a language’ – these skills are ones of logic, discipline, creativity, confidence and many more, and they are skills that we are missing out on because we don’t have to make any effort to get our thoughts across. Though their surprise is not meant condescendingly, to me, it sounds like ‘you guys aren’t meant to be as intelligent as we are’.
There is, however, an even more sinister consequence of our failure to make an effort with foreign languages. My inability to express myself effectively whilst learning Italian has made me pay even more attention to my expression in English and, consequently, I have become amazed at how often what I say fails truly to convey the emotions inside my head, both because of laziness (does it really matter if I’m jealous or envious?) and because of a fundamental lack of vocabulary. Can it really be true that our practice of speaking only English is actually making our English worse?
Not putting yourself under pressure to find the correct way of informing others of what’s in your head means that you become less and less able to communicate effectively. This privilege that comes with the popularity of English will soon cease to be one, because our foreign friends, who not only learn English, but learn the skills that go with learning a language, will be able to express themselves in English better than we ourselves can, simply because they are more practised at connecting their thoughts to their words effectively. In turn, it may already be hard for me, an Englishman, to analyse my expression and to apply such skills to my learning a foreign language – but this challenge is only going to become harder if we do not make the effort to change how foreign languages, and our own language, are taught and considered in our society.
And I almost managed to write this post without mentioning Brexit – but does it really need to be said that such a rejection of Europe and its people will spark big changes to how we communicate with them? In some ways, I hope that the popularity of English does decline with our withdrawal: it might force the government to train us in vital skills of expression and thought that we currently miss out on. And it might even increase the value of my Classics degree (ha, ha).