I have always felt incredibly lucky to be British. Not only am I proud of my country and the place which I call my home, but I have also grown up speaking the English language as my mother tongue. The second-most widely-spoken global tongue after Mandarin, English has also been the leading language of international discourse since the mid-20th century.
Indeed, holidays as a child were never affected by a frantic display of sign language with new foreign friends: the other children all appeared beautifully fluent in English while I struggled with basics like “bonjour”. These memories are backed up by the fact that over 90% of school children in the European Union learn English from a young age.
In some ways, this has led to other countries thinking that the British are ‘language barbarians’ – that we travel assuming locals all around the world are almost bound to understand us.
That could well be true. Linda Parker, Director of the Association for Language Learning, says: “We don't live in a language-learning culture... we rely on other people learning our language rather than making the effort ourselves."
Although most Britons learn a second language at school, only one in ten actually continues to speak it at more than a basic level. It’s certainly embarrassing to think that only 5% of British students study a language at A-Level. What’s even more worrying is that poor language skills may be to blame for the UK’s lack of business presence overseas – we make up 9% of Europe’s population, but only account for 5% of its jobs.
I’m being rather hypocritical here. Having visited Larnaka in Cyprus approximately 14 times in my life, I’m no better at holding a sentence in Greek than one of the cats which roam the hotel where I always stay.
Realising that, this year I made an effort to immerse myself in Cypriot culture. I greeted the waiters morning, noon and night in Greek, and ordered all my food this way, too. Okay, so I’m not quite fluent yet – but I certainly brought a smile to the faces of the staff as I bumbled my way through “Tha ithela kotópoulo saláta tou Kaísara, parakalo” (“I’d like a Chicken Caesar Salad, please.”).
In the past, being able only to communicate in English would stand you in good stead, but our rapidly-developing world means this isn’t the case anymore. It’s encouraging to see that an increasing number of British schools now offer Mandarin on their curriculum, for example – something I feel would have been much more worthwhile to me instead of Latin GCSE.
And, while it’s true that languages are most easily and effectively picked up when one’s young, there is no genuine age-limit when it comes to language acquisition. Languages aren’t just about communicating, either; they can open your eyes to whole cultures and new friends. In the words of Charles the Great, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.”
*To quote Wikipedia, “a lingua franca (or working language, bridge language, vehicular language) is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue.”