Via The Guardian : European leaders tell us: ‘English is losing importance.’ So which language should students learn to give themselves the best chance of success?
We Brits are pretty settled in our role as monoglots. Our default tactic of “speak English slowly and loudly so others can understand you” served us well enough – and then Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European commission, put the boot in by claiming recently that “English is losing importance.”
Is this really the case? Experts are divided.
Post-Brexit, only two EU countries (Ireland and Malta) will have English as their official language. Despite this, it’s unlikely to lose its importance, according to Tony Thorne, language consultant at King’s College London.
“English is the global lingua franca – not just in terms of the number of speakers, but because of its soft power and global reach,” he says. “It’s the language of the internet, fashion and the entertainment industry.”
But could the tide be turning? Perhaps, says Katrin Kohl, professor of German at the University of Oxford. “Juncker’s not joking,” she says. “With Britain no longer a central part of Europe, it might be time to resurrect other languages and give them higher status.”
Perhaps the new state of affairs in the EU might even be enough to start reversing the decline in language courses studied at UK universities.
It’s all quite a challenge for the monolingual Brit. So what might we do well to learn? Let’s see what the experts think.
Everyone might as well speak German in Europe because Angela Merkel runs the EU, right? Well, perhaps. Massive compound words such as Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (“motor vehicle indemnity insurance”) make it pretty scary.
But its similarities with English mean it’s easier than it looks. “Since it is also a Germanic language, some of the vocabulary is relatively easy to learn,” says Wendy Ayres-Bennett, a linguistics professor at the University of Cambridge.
Is it worth learning, though? Deciding which language to learn, says Kohl, is generally based on how many people in the world speak it or how useful it is for tourist purposes. But there are some languages that are just useful, and German is one them.
“In business terms, German is extremely important,” she says. “There are a lot of words you can work out from knowing English, so it seems relatively familiar. There’s a sense of affinity that develops with learning it.”
Out of five, how hard is it, and how handy?
Chinese languages are tonal: the pitch or inflection you give a word changes its meaning. It’s something that English speakers are not familiar with, says Ayres-Bennett. But this shouldn’t put learners off.
Success in language learning depends on motivation and the amount of exposure (which is why Europeans tend to be good at English). “If languages are well taught, and students have a clear motivation for learning them, then they will manage to learn.”
The French would love it if we all started learning their language. They firmly believe it has an unrivalled cachet in elite circles.
But how important is it really? “In the EU bureaucracy, French is still very important; and it is also important in certain regions – west Africa for example,” says Peter Skrandies, language co-ordinator at the London School of Economics.
Simon Coffey, senior lecturer in language education at King’s College London, thinks there are lots of reasons for Brits to learn French properly. Given that motivations for learning a language include its usefulness and prestige, he says, “French scores highly on all counts, and continues to be the second-most taught language in the world”.
Russian or Arabic?
In terms of what might make us more employable right now, we might do well to learn Russian or Arabic. “These are languages needed by the foreign office and our security services,” says Ayres-Bennett. “If we are thinking in terms of defence, or soft power, then it would be useful to have more learners.”
Skrandies agrees. “Russia has always been very important in eastern Europe and central Asia, and it might become more so from a security point of view. Arabic has great interest for religious studies and, during the past two years, it has become very important in Germany because of the refugee situation.”
Unlike Mandarin, which is spoken by a lot of people but is confined to one region, Spanish has gone global. You could get away with just speaking English on a trip to Ibiza, but you might struggle travelling in South America.
Spanish is also one of the easier languages to pick up. “It has been rising over the last decade or two, and is now taught almost as widely as French. And that’s partly because it is such a widespread language,” says Kohl.
Some linguists reckon Afrikaans might be most straightforward language a Brit can learn. “It shares some vocabulary with English, and has a simple grammatical system,” says Thorne.
Unfortunately, it’s not the most useful. Skrandies says what matters most in acquiring a language, though, is how much you want to learn it. “It’s about motivation, he says. “In truth, the easiest language to learn is the one that we really want to learn.”
Never heard of it? Spoken by a few thousand people along the north German coast, this “strange, funny language” is the historical mid-point between English, German and Dutch – and it’s not too distant from the Scandinavian languages.
With English on the decline, could it become a goer as a middle-ground language? No chance, say experts. “It is the closest thing to English and to Dutch, and it would be understandable to many Germans, but of course hardly anyone speaks it and people aren’t going to start learning,” says Thorne.