Languages in a post-Brexit world – thoughts from Hay Festival

May 31st, 2018 by

Do we really need to bother about learning modern languages when, in a post-Brexit world with new free-trade partnerships, everyone will speak English? That was the proposition discussed at the Hay Festival on a panel organised by Cardiff University, which has already been reported in the Guardian and elsewhere. My input, reproduced below, focused on the cultural and cognitive benefits of language learning: why we get so much more when we learn a language than just another system for buying an ice-cream. Together with me on the panel were Claire Gorrara, Professor of French at Cardiff University, Chris Lewis, Director of Education at British Council Wales, and Anna-Vivian Jones, a Welsh and modern languages specialist who is closely involved with the development of the new curriculum in Wales. They made a powerful case for the strategic and economic importance of language skills as a contribution to the UK’s soft power and the educational value of language learning for the development of tolerant, open-minded citizens who value both their own and other peoples’ cultures. These are the points that I made:

  1. We get the emphasis wrong and skew perceptions when we talk about being about to ‘speak’ a language. The value is not just about productive skills – me being able to express my English-speaking thoughts in another language – but about understanding – the receptive ability to take in what other people are communicating – to us and to each other. If we put the emphasis on understanding rather than on speaking, our ideas of what it is to learn another language are transformed in two ways. Firstly, we are immediately taken into the realm of culture. Language learning becomes a truly educational and transformative experience where we step out of our own way of seeing the world and start to realise that there are many more ways of experiencing life. And secondly, if we prioritise understanding over speaking, we relieve the pressure on learners to perform, the idea that we’ll never be fluent or be able to communicate as well as we can in our first language, so why bother. Of course it’s worth bothering if we are going to learn something that we can’t get at through English alone.
  2. This takes us into the second point which is a misleading idea I think some people have that languages are perfectly equivalent to each other and they are just parallel systems. Sometimes I think the preponderance of bilingual signs, and hyped-up perceptions around applications like Google Translate, tend inadvertently to suggest that everything can quite straightforwardly and unproblematically be translated into everything else and that one system is much the same as any other. But sometimes one language does things better than another one, or is more appropriate in a specific circumstance. They are not systems that map perfectly on to each other. They divide up the world differently, whether it’s about colours or time or human emotions. I was struck by this recently in Cordoba reading a tourist leaflet in English which offered things to do in the morning and in the evening. ‘Mañana’ and ‘tarde’. So where is the afternoon? Afternoon is of course ‘tarde’ but it doesn’t start till at least 5 o’clock in Andalusia –it’s not considered that you would do anything important between 2 and 5pm, so they translate it as evening. In Spanish there are literally two ways of being, two verbs ‘to be’. If I say ‘my brother is ill’ that is a temporary state, but if I say ‘this is my brother’ I am referring to something permanent and immutable. That’s quite a profound realisation, and you come across all sorts of features like this when you are learning a language that make you stop in your tracks and take stock about how we describe the world. There are also words which have no translation, or can only be translated with circumlocutions, which pin down sensations or experiences which othersie would go unremarked or unnoticed. My favourite is a Scottish Gaelic word for ‘the tingling sensation in your upper lip before you take a sip of whisky’.
  3. My third point is about rational thinking. Psychologists using standard tests which determine how logically we make decisions and how susceptible people are to emotional influence, have found that people are more logical, more rational and better able to filter out emotive and sensationalist language when they use their second or subsequent language rather than their mother tongue. People are better able to detect bias: a second language provides a ‘useful cognitive distance from automatic processes’ and ‘reduces unthinking emotional reaction’. Learning another language forces you to focus on meaning, to be more deliberate. It heightens a sense of perspective and has the potential to enable more logical judgement and better decision-making. In a world where there is so much concern with fake news and appeals to the emotions on social media, that, I think this must be a very powerful argument in favour of language learning as a tool for democracy.


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