The English dis-ease

Thomas Docherty muses on the challenges of second-language acquisition

June 21, 2012

One evening in September 1975, I boarded a train heading south to start a year abroad for my French degree. The journey to Paris, by train and boat, took 22 hours: this was far away. I had rarely been out of Glasgow before, and the escapade was exciting, but also vaguely threatening. I didn’t have enough French to survive easily: I could recite Racine, but Phèdre’s desire butters no parsnips, nor does it buy a baguette. However, in an environment where there was no access to English, I rapidly acquired a decent working knowledge, and survived.

Recently, I was reminded of this - for me, an experiment in wild exoticism - when a student whose work I examined secured that elusive thing: a third. He had failed his German oral; and the exam regulations consequently determined that result. I enquired how he had managed to fail, given that presumably he had spent his required year abroad. It transpired that, although he had spent the year in Berlin, he had effectively lived in the medium of English: his friends were Facebook addresses, he got news from the BBC, and the German students around him were already proficient in English. Far from immersing himself in German, he had continued to live entirely in English.

Our supposed globalisation attracts anxieties about foreign languages, and CBI surveys repeatedly highlight industry’s need for employees with foreign-language skills. But plus ça change. In 1935, P.G. Wodehouse opened The Luck of the Bodkins with a description of an Englishman abroad: “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French”. As in all comedy, this reveals a problem whose underlying gravity cannot be easily faced. The issue concerns languages, certainly; but also more fundamental principles of university education.

Anyone with a second language knows that translation involves more than just re-coding linguistic signs. In speaking French or Italian, say, the shape of one’s mouth and face change to make the sounds correctly; and thus we feel that our very selfhood, an identity embodied in the face, is changed. To speak French properly, you need to be - or at least to act - French. We become Sartre’s waiter, playing a waiter-role; and those who manage this succeed in the new language and get the tips. Much is at stake: to speak a foreign language threatens our identity, while also emancipating us precisely from the limitations of what-we-already-know.

It remains puzzling that English native speakers have difficulties with language acquisition, while other Europeans and Asians seem to acquire English with relative ease. Perhaps a certain xenophobia that afflicts political life finds itself replicated in our education policies; and a certain colonial or imperial mentality persists in the belief that, within every foreigner, there lurks an Englishman or Englishwoman just waiting to burst out, as if “English” was somehow associated with truth, authenticity and real humanity. It recalls 1970s Hollywood movies where a self-evidently contemporary Charlton Heston, stylish side-burns and all, appears essentially in fancy dress pretending to be Roman, but really being very evidently American-under-the-toga.

It is doubtless true that English enjoys a prestigious status, maybe because of American power, or TV, or rock music: it is sexy in ways that Finnish or Portuguese may not be for our domestic students. In short, part of the attraction of English is that it grants its speaker a certain cultural legitimacy, and speaking it is more than useful: it yields authority to its speaker within her or his social and other networks. Our UK tabloids are extremely suspicious of the new England football manager, Roy Hodgson, not because of a perceived lack of tactical nous but because he can speak several languages: an unusual exoticism that seemingly delegitimises his authority as a leader of English footballers in some way. Astonishingly, our most popular tabloid preferred to run a headline mocking the minor speech impediment of a man with six languages: Bwing on the Euwos!

There are more fundamental issues here, to do with education in general. “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” said Wittgenstein; and to speak it is to identify oneself with that life, to inhabit it temporarily, and to validate its legitimate versions of selfhood. That is difficult, and also threatening, for it threatens the solidity of the self. Yet this - the fundamental change of the self - is what we have forgotten as a fundamental axiom of all education, and especially of university education. The purpose of a university education is to change the self, and not to consolidate an existing identity. At least, that was why I was there - or in France - in 1975. In the present, however, we are encouraged to believe that the purpose is to effect a change not in the self but in the wallet.

One source of this degeneration in ambition lies in the ostensible triumph of market consumerism; but a second determinant is found in the rise, especially within humanities, of identity politics. Identity politics - in which I celebrate my existing identity - reassures me that, no matter what texts or science - or language and culture - I encounter, I am really always and everywhere the same, and content to be so.

To reassert the centrality of languages in university education is also to reclaim its fundamental principles, of changing life and imagining forms of life that we cannot yet describe, like Phèdre’s desire.

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