Sunday, 30 August 2009

Britain's disgrace (languages)

I watched some of the Belgian Grand Prix this afternoon. I'm not the gratest of fans of the sport but I do watch the occasional race. The two Brits crashed out early so I didn't have any special interest in the result.

However an event of the end of the race made me think.

The race was won by a Finn, with an Italian second and a German third. Nothing too unusual there. But in the post race press conference all three drivers (Raikkonen, Fisichella and Vettel) spoke near perfect English. From my travels in Europe I know that a good knowledge of English is not all that uncommon. I've had conversations in English with people I've met in Italy, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands etc.

In Britain though you'd not find this the case. Okay there are a number of second generation immigrants in Britain who can speak the languages of their parents' homelands. But you find Brits without this linguistic advantage and more than half will have no real knowledge of a second language. Maybe a handful of words but no real mastery.

It does sadden me we don't get into languages as much as our European counterparts. I even take some blame upon myself. I didn't try all that hard at French when I was at school, and opted not to take German at all. I just couldn't see the point. Everything I wanted at the time (fiction, films, music etc) was in English so why spend time learning a language I didn't need.

Well I should have. In recent years I have come to understand just how useful this would have been. I've made something of an effort. I have a basic grasp of French and Italian but I couldn't conduct business in either. I just know enough to order from menus, buy tickets, ask for directions etc etc. All the stuff you need on a holiday if you want to stay clear of restaurants with "tourist menu" signs in the window or stores advertising "We speak English".

It gives me enough to get a better feeling of a country, its people and culture but far less than I want and feel our European partners deserve form us.

At my last company we were developing software for a German company. They were the customer, yet all business was conducted in English, not German. It had to be, no one at the company spoke any German. I felt ashamed.

We are Europeans. We should act the part!

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