It was inspirational to read John le Carré’s timely piece on “Why we should learn German” (News). Through his personal narrative about learning German, he encapsulates so eloquently all the key motivations for learning languages: access to other cultures; curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.
The letter is written by a professor of modern languages, and it shows. In my experience, knowledge of a foreign language is one of the most overrated skills one is encouraged to acquire – unless it is English. It is ironic that it’s the monoglot UK which pushes this line, perhaps because those doing the pushing are unaware of the limitations. For instance, how much “meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners” has a professor of modern languages at the University of Belfast engaged in?
It is true that knowing a foreign language can build strong relationships and help greatly in understanding and learning about other cultures. But if this is a reason for Brits to learn Spanish, why is it not also the case for Germans, say? Why does everyone else get to learn English and stop there, uninterested in going any further? If Brits are being told they will struggle abroad, how does everyone else manage with just English and their (locally useless) native tongue?
The answer is that once you know English, you can do 90% of what you need; if that weren’t the case you’d see foreigners desperately trying to learn third and fourth languages, and generally you don’t. Once you know English, your time is better off spent learning something else.
I am far from fluent in Russian, but I can get by pretty well, especially in a social environment. When it comes to business my vocabulary lets me down, but I could learn it if I had an incentive. The trouble is, I don’t. Russian was incredibly useful when living in Russia but largely useless once I left. Sure, it is great to be able to go on the lash with a load of Russians (as I did in Baden-Baden two weeks ago) and not feel left out and learning about Russian history and culture simultaneously with the language was very rewarding in itself, but professionally it has been useless. The truth is, nobody is interested in whether I speak Russian, and this was the case even when I worked there. I have seen colleagues assigned to Russia and Azerbaijan and been utterly lost from Day 1, but never has their lack of language skills been a concern, and never has my language skill been seen as a reason to involve me in something. At best, my being able to speak Russian is seen as a mildly interesting piece of trivia, nothing more.
I believe that even if I were fluent this would be the case. From what I have seen, abilities in languages other than English are simply not rated highly by corporate managers and HR people, and come a long way down the list behind obedience, conformity, compliance, and simply having a face that fits. I know people fluent in languages working in giant multinational companies whose language skills lie idle, useful only when socialising or in the occasional restaurant. I have a friend in Paris who is fluent in English and also speaks Mandarin. She found Mandarin very useful in China, but since moving to Paris it simply isn’t required. Her employer, a huge multinational, is interested in her MBA and professional experience, not her language skills (other than English, of course).
Contrary to what the professor says, languages other than English are only mildly useful in the business world – everything gets done in English as soon as foreigners are involved. That’s not to say learning a language isn’t useful and rewarding, but the idea that doors will fly open as companies desperately seek to employ polyglot Englishmen is nonsense.
As is this, in my opinion:
These are precisely the reasons why languages matter so much to our future: they are crucial for building deep relationships across cultural differences, both globally and in communities around the UK, relationships that are game-changers for business, security and peace in an interconnected world.
Now obviously this professor is talking his own book, but learning a language is often a necessary but not sufficient step to building relationships with foreigners. In some instances, such as with Russians, the language isn’t even necessary. In my experience, Russians tend to get you blind drunk early on and “see what sort of a person you are” before trusting you with friendship. Although speaking their language certainly helps, your character is a lot more important. Turning up in Russia fluent but a slimy, untrustworthy prick isn’t going to get you far, and a monoglot foreigner they actually like will do a lot better.
I have known several expats here in France who believed the only thing preventing them being accepted into French social circles was the language barrier. A decade later they’re fluent, but still waiting for the dinner invitations. Shared culture and character are often far more important when building relations with foreigners than mere language skills.
Conclusive proof comes by looking at which nationalities do well internationally and establish business, cultural, and social relationships everywhere they go. Is it the famously multilingual Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians? Is it the serious dual-language Germans or Swedes? What about the sociable Spanish or Italians? No, it’s the hopelessly monolingual Americans and Brits. If knowledge of foreign languages is a key requirement in conquering the world commercially and culturally, nobody thought to tell the Anglo-Saxons.
My advice would be to encourage people to decide first which cultures they want to learn more about and which countries they want to live in, and start learning the languages that will help them with that. It probably won’t help their careers much, but it will make their cultural experience far deeper, more rewarding, and longer lasting. But the idea that “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is required is laughable. The time and money would be better spent acquiring skills people want to pay for.