Times article with Luciana Berger

We take it for granted that public figures from the rest of Europe can speak flawless English, as Emmanuel Macron did in his interview on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday. We expect the presidents and prime ministers of France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Sweden or Norway to be able to conduct their politics and diplomacy with us in English.

And yet we are impressed when a British political leader reciprocates. In 1998, when Tony Blair addressed the French assembly in the fluent French he picked up working in Parisian bars, it was as though he was performing heart surgery whilst riding a unicycle. Nick Clegg wowed the crowds in Berlin as deputy prime minister with his command of German. These examples of linguistic proficiency are few and far between.

There’s an amusing scene in The Darkest Hour when Gary Oldman’s Churchill attempts to persuade the French generals to counter-attack in his terrible, incomprehensible French, before the generals suggest switching to English. Most British politicians can muster a little French they learnt in school, and rely on their interlocutor to have made the effort to learn English.

It’s not just politicians, though, is it? The British have made a virtue of their lack of languages. The British Council published a survey showing half of us are embarrassed to not be able to speak foreign languages when abroad.

In the world of business, too, our captains of industry remain stubbornly monolingual. This has spawned a lucrative market for translators, but does little to enhance the idea we are open for business. The people most likely to be multilingual in modern Britain are not our political and business elites, but the people serving the coffee in the boardroom. Recent immigrants, often stuck in low-paid jobs, or working in the NHS or social care, usually speak two, three or even more languages.

This must change. As the government navigates through the Brexit negotiations, the UK is being forced into a protracted and chaotic process of reinventing and recasting its relationships. No matter how often the Brexiters say that “we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe”, the fact of the matter is that we have burned multiple bridges with Europe in the last few years. We desperately and urgently need to start rebuilding those bridges, and that means being able to reach out and engage with our European friends, and the more than we can do that in their languages the better.

Outside the EU, we need the rest of the world more than the rest of the world needs us. We will need to rethink our laissez-faire approach to “foreign” languages, and learn to speak to our potential partners in their own first languages. English, with its 1.5 billion speakers worldwide, remains one of our greatest national assets. But as the world tilts eastwards and southwards, away from the West and towards India, China as well as South America and Africa, we will need to learn to communicate in other global languages such as Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin.

It must start with our schools. Government schemes to attract more modern language teachers are struggling to fill their places. Just a handful of British schools teach Mandarin, with only around 5,000 pupils set to have fluent Mandarin by 2020. So we need a renewed focus on modern languages for the next generation, in our schools and then in higher and further education. If we lose access to Eramus+, we need to replace this superb opportunity for students to live abroad for a year, immersed in a different culture and language with something similar. We also need more adult education in languages for everyone from business leaders to civil servants, with a focus on trade and investment.

Learning another language isn’t only about politics, business or diplomacy. It is an act of friendship; it’s about immersing yourself in the culture, history and identity of another country. And it builds self-awareness, enabling us to see ourselves as others see us.

To quote Charlemagne: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

And of course, politicians should model good behaviour, using other people’s languages wherever and whenever possible, and taking the time to learn a new language. How differently the world would view us if we learnt their lingo. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if the British prime minister and all of his or her cabinet routinely had a mastery of French, German or Spanish? Or Bengali, Portuguese or Russian for that matter.

If Emmanuel Macron can do it, so can we.


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