Be grateful we speak English
As English is the Latin of the modern business world, learning another language is not so important for us
Who’s learning what?: Xiaodong Li teaching Chinese at UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
There are plausible educational grounds for teaching foreign languages in schools, but we must be cautious about the fashionable belief that teaching them will increase economic growth. There is everything to be said for teaching people the language of the country to which we wish to sell goods and services. This is best done in intensive courses in the languages of target countries. During the school years it is unrealistic to specify what these languages will be or which students will be required to use them. On account of its status as the major world language of scholarship, science, commerce and the media, English is clearly the most useful language for non-English speakers to learn. The access it offers to Anglo-American popular culture also provides a motivation to learn it. English speakers are simply not exposed to the cultural products of other linguistic communities in the way that non-English speakers are exposed to those of the anglophone world.
The ever-increasing enthusiasm of foreigners to learn English arguably acts as a serous disincentive to English speakers to learn other languages. Indeed, given the desire of so many to learn English, we should be surprised that even greater numbers do not speak the language and speak it better than they do.
Though more people speak Mandarin and Spanish, English enjoys a special hegemony, partly because its international penetration is so extensive. The internet has made English the Latin of the modern world. Its status as a neutral vehicle of communication is also striking. Anecdotally, I understand that Flemings and Walloons, who may be reluctant to use the language of the other linguistic community, are coming to accept English as a neutral medium of communication.
As an enthusiastic linguist, the decline in the status of other languages is not something that I welcome. My exasperation in France and Germany in trying to find French or German speakers who do not attempt to foist their English on me has no doubt been shared by many English speakers wishing to speak these, and other, languages. In common with many other Irish people, I consider it a double courtesy not to be addressed in English, firstly because Irish is the primary language of my country and secondly because I am always happy to try to speak other languages.
Some years ago a French minister for education decreed that English was no longer a foreign language, stating that it had become a commodity, like a computer or the internet. This met with predictable opposition on the grounds that it implied acceptance of the dominance of the US. But the voices raised against English, the tsunami language of the modern world, seem powerless in the face of an inexorable trend.
It is important not to exaggerate the importance of learning a foreign language nor to underestimate the extent to which many Irish people can get by in at least one other language. After all, French is one of the most subscribed subjects in the Leaving Certificate. In learning Irish we have access to the educational benefits that derive from learning a second language, but this is far from claiming that the study of Irish should be compulsory throughout all the years of schooling.
Most of all let us be grateful that in Ireland we speak the global language of our times.
Dr Kevin Williams lectures at Mater Dei Institute of Education and is a former president of the Educational Studies Association of Ireland