Felipe Fernández-Armesto

October 13, 2006

To learn English, go to Catalonia. Fiscal incentives for language learning are on the platforms of both main parties in the forthcoming elections there. It makes one wonder what might winkle most Britons out of their bleak, dim, monoglot little worlds.

Catalonia is already a bilingual country, where almost everyone speaks Catalan and Spanish. Leaders of both Right and Left want everyone to master English, too, with what they call Dutch-style levels of competence.

(This is entirely sensible. When I lectured in Leiden I found the students in my audience spoke English somewhat better, on the whole, with more care for clarity and more respect for tradition, than those I left in Oxford.) The motives of Catalan policymakers are sordid: they want their people to have an advantage in international arenas. The choice of English as Catalonia's third language owes nothing to the presumable merits of English culture. Like the ascent of English generally to be the world's common language, it is a consequence of the magnetic power and wealth of the US.

But any acquired language enriches experience, broadens minds, empowers expression, enhances life. Catalonia's politicians have shown wisdom worthy of imitation.

In the Netherlands, where proficiency in foreign tongues is imbedded in the education system as part of the expectations of citizenship, fiscal incentives are unnecessary. In Scandinavia, too, people can be trusted to learn without being bribed. But in the UK, where so much of the curriculum has been bludgeoned into dumbness, radical action is needed. Schools could get rewards for introducing or restoring languages. Children willing to board abroad in accredited schools, without access to English-speakers, could be sent with the nation's blessing, all expenses paid. Broadcasters could enjoy tax breaks for airing foreign-language programmes: the availability of English-language television is the biggest single factor in the Dutch phenomenon of near-universal mastery of English as a second tongue. The Catalans have realised this and are going to encourage such broadcasting on their airwaves.

Meanwhile, the British - or at least those outside communities where a traditional language already thrives alongside English - have to be disabused of two common falsehoods. The first is that language learning is unnecessary in an English-speaking world. "Reason not the need," as one of the few great English writers said. "Allow not nature more than nature needs, man's life is cheap as beast's." The English the world speaks is in any case "international English", which everyone educated learns, except the British. It is pathetic to see British delegates excluded at international gatherings because their counterparts from other countries are chatting together in an unfamiliar version of their own tongue. In a spirit of pas devant les domestiques , other Europeans switch, when they wish, to a code - such as German or Spanish or Italian - which leaves Anglos marginalised and deservedly humiliated. You can no longer be sure nowadays that even a relatively well-educated Briton will speak la langue de tout homme civilisé .

The second deadly assumption is that languages are hard. They are not. They seep effortlessly into young minds. They get harder with the passage of years, but a reasonable level of competence always remains accessible. Each new language gets easier with the impetus of the last.

One of the best ways of learning a language, if you cannot afford to go and live for a while among people who speak it, is to immerse yourself in the poetry. Because poems have rhythm and rhyme, phrases stick in the mind. An hour spent struggling to understand a sonnet - say - of Petrarch leaves the student happier and more richly transformed than a corresponding time in the company of the Italian version of Janet and John. And though poetry-soaked students may end up with an eccentric lexicon, they will have opened a window into the minds of the people with whom they want to communicate, for in almost every culture there is a common poetic heritage that stocks thoughts with images and allusions. Of course, awkward moments can arise. When I was trying to teach myself Dutch, I entered a junk shop in Wassenaar where the owner apologised for the mess. All I could think of to say was a line from a poem I had read that morning. Literally it meant, "Had I a house, I would collect rubbish and grow chestnuts in the corridor." The effect of the exchange was to confirm the widespread Dutch assumption that only mad foreigners bother with the language.

Still, I should rather see travellers arraigned for noble madness than endure - often ignorantly unaware - the contempt they currently attract as doltish, oafish, lumpish, boorish, brutish and British.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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