Saturday, February 14, 2009
Parlez-vous francais? Pourquoi?
We Americans are notorious for our arrogant monolinguality, for expecting everybody else to speak English with us when we go abroad. We rarely learn more than the smattering of a foreign tongue required in high school. Since the rest of the world is learning English at an increasing pace, we reason, why bother?
Now, according to an interesting opinion piece by "Charlemagne" in this week's Economist (it's online only to subscribers), the Brits are following us into the mud of linguistic ignorance. As Europeans become bilingual, those in the United Kingdom are becoming monolingual.
What's more, even though an increasing number of newspapers and magazines throughout Europe are mounting English websites, enabling native speakers of French, German, Dutch, Polish and other languages to exchange ideas and information in a universal language, the average Briton cares little for the intellectual and social treasures of these sites.
According to Charlemagne, British papers have closed foreign bureaus, partly because of the economic doldrums but also lack of interest. "Britain's daily newspapers are less and less interested in European politics and policy. Light, sensational stuff is what editors choose for publication, plus tales of British tourists and expatriates in trouble (a genre known as 'Brits in the shit.')"
Sounds very American, doesn't it?
The trouble, Charlemagne continues, began in 2003 when Britain dropped the foreign language requirement for pupils over 14. Instruction in foreign tongues plummeted, and "that robs [the pupils] of such benefits as the humility and respect for others that come from learning another language."
Of course, Charlemagne cites a Belgian academic as saying, "given the rise of English, [this development] is rational."
European Union meetings, he said, almost always are held "in a language that is understood, at least minimally, by all," and "this is almost always English."
And so, Charlemagne concludes, Brits are finding it harder to justify the effort to learn another language.
Doesn't make it right, of course. As the globe grows smaller, the riches of other cultures -- as expressed in their languages -- help rejuvenate a nation. One of the resulting problems we have as Americans who do not speak a foreign tongue is our extreme cultural parochialism, often manifested in aggressive ignorance toward "hot-button" social issues.
Now, it seems, Brits are becoming know-nothing yobbos like all too many of us Yanks.