Friday 14 May 2010

Speaking in tongues

In the Netherlands people are used to hearing their national politicians taking press conferences and interviews in English for the benefit of a wider international audience. Whenever they are required to do so, foreign secretaries, finance ministers and the like are generally able to put across their message in English albeit with varying degrees of dexterity. Take Jan Pronk for example, perhaps best known for his time as Dutch Minister of Development Aid. Whilst his command of English is terrific, his crabbed guttural pronunciation lets him down. Begrudgingly, I would also add Geert Wilders – he with the Mozart coiffure and anti-Islamist views – to the list of competent English speakers. There are others too, including Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former secretary-general of NATO, whose main claim to fame, linguistically at least, was that English TV and radio presenters could never pronounce his name correctly.

British politicians who speak a foreign language on the other hand are a rarity, so when you hear them doing so, it makes you sit up and notice. When they do it well, it’s quite extraordinary. Imagine my surprise then when I was alerted to a YouTube clip of Nick Clegg - this week instated as Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - being interviewed on the election stumps by a Dutch TV crew. His Dutch is well-nigh impeccable. Of course, it has to be said that Clegg has a Dutch mother and spent several years living in Flanders working as a Eurocrat and MEP. Nevertheless, pretty amazing stuff. The truth is though, if the roles were reversed (i.e. a Dutch politician speaking flawless English), nobody would bat an eyelid.

Not so long ago, the UK had a prime minister who could speak French, but in general, polyglots amongst the Westminster political fraternity are few and far between. Denis MacShane, who was the Minister for Europe under the Blair regime, speaks French, Spanish and German fluently and has a working knowledge of a smattering of other languages. James Purnell, a former Labour cabinet member, speaks fluent French (he grew up in France) and Ben Bradshaw, another former minister who was ousted from government at the 2010 election, studied German at university and worked as an award-winning radio correspondent for the BBC in Berlin when the Wall came down. But that seems to be as far as it gets.     

The reality is that too few British politicians speak a foreign language. Many believe this leads to a blinkered, Anglo-Saxon view of the world. However, even though you can point the finger of blame in their direction, it’s not just the politicians: their lack of foreign-language skills reflects a wider unwillingness on the part of Britons to embrace multilingualism. Despite having joined the Common Market in 1973, time seems to have stood still. When I was studying French and German A-level in the 1970s, language students in the UK were considered somewhat quirky, but today things actually seem worse: language learning, according to experts, is rapidly becoming a “twilight” subject in state schools. In 2004, the Labour government even decided to take compulsory language learning off the GCSE (exam) curriculum. Nowadays, language students are evidently even quirkier. And sooner, rather than later, there will be no teachers left to teach languages. Contrast this with the Netherlands (and other European countries), where language learning is a mainstream element of the curriculum. Of course, it’s a myth that the British lack the genes for it: the British ineptitude to speak foreign languages cannot simply be shrugged off by quoting the old chestnut, “Sorry, we’re just no good at it!”

Yes, English is a global language, but consider where the UK’s trade markets lie. Culturally, the benefits of learning a foreign language would appear to be self-evident, but economically, they should be even more obvious. The EU, collectively, is by far and away the UK’s biggest trading partner, yet native English-speakers only account for 13% of the overall EU population, against 18% who are German-speakers, 13% Italian, 12% French and 9% Spanish. Of course, many people on the continent speak English as a second language, but if UK business hopes to break into these potentially prosperous markets, they will have to learn to communicate more effectively with them, that is, by speaking their own language. 

So, does a multilingual Lib-Dem deputy prime minister offer hope, or does the inherent antipathy towards all things European on the part of his new coalition partners presage a further watering down of language learning in the UK?