Mary Kenny: ‘Young people are increasingly reluctant to learn a foreign language, simply because everyone now speaks English’


Mary Kenny: ‘Young people are increasingly reluctant to learn a foreign language, simply because everyone now speaks English’


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

It is frequently lamented that there is such a steady decline in the learning of foreign languages among native English speakers. Only 4pc of Irish students go on to study a foreign language at university. In England, Wales and the North, the outlook for European language learning is just as gloomy: French and German have experienced a steep decline since 2010.

During the prolonged Brexit imbroglio (a nice Italian word import), or the political impasse (imported from French), anglophones often remarked on the ease with which Continental Europeans now routinely hold their press conferences in only lightly accented English: Juncker, Tusk, Barnier, Macron, Rutte. How many Irish or British politicians could perform as confidently in French, German or Spanish?

The only British politician known to be an outstanding linguist is the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, who speaks fluent Pashto, having spent time wandering the terrain of Afghanistan, just for the fun of it. Respect to him.

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Yet every time Juncker, Tusk, Barnier & Co spout English, they knock another nail into the coffin of language-learning among anglophones. Youngsters think: why learn foreign lingos when everyone speaks English? And though this is dispiriting for those of us who have always liked learning languages, it’s the brutal truth. English is global. Everyone does business in it. The Swedes now publish all their scientific papers in English.

Just try speaking Dutch in the Netherlands, having learned off a few polite phrases, such as, “which is the way to the station?”. You’ll inevitably be answered in English. Which may be for the best, all told.

It’s nice to learn a few words of anyone else’s language – how charming when visitors to Ireland come out with the cupla focal that they have carefully rehearsed. It’s also polite and a necessary etiquette to say “May I speak English?” when opening up an anglophone conversation.

But the Department of Education’s publication ‘Languages Connect’, recommending foreign languages “for trade and the economy and our own cultural life” is only right in the last affirmation. Cultural enhancement, okay. But trade and the economy? All done in English.

The other brutal truth is that most of us, through the course of our lives, are not going to master a foreign language. I’ve spent years, on and off, trying to learn German, and although it’s often been interesting, it’s also been a waste of time. German is a snidely deceptive tongue: because it has ‘lexical similarity’ to English (many basic words like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are similar) it looks accessible at first. You can always get to first base: “Noch ein kaffee, bitte.”

But your head begins to spin when the grammar looms – “der Mann, den Mann, des Mannes, dem Mann” according to case. Then you try to read a newspaper like the Frankfurter Allegemeine – well, forget it.

I learned French when I was a teenager and got to speak it reasonably well. But I still attend a monthly French conversation session, and still need to read a French newspaper daily to retain skill. Language learning requires constant input and constant commitment. And I’m still learning!

If young people prefer to focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – their choice is justified. STEMs will be much more useful to them. And most of the tekkie stuff they will tackle will be in English. Portuguese audiology technicians now do their research into the development of hearing apparatuses in English.

Robots and language apps are also increasingly used as translation supports when communications get stalled.

Today, the only real reason to learn another language is for the love of it (which should have been the real reason for learning Irish, rather than rigid compulsion). Yes, if you plan to live in the Costa del Sol, it would be polite, as well as rewarding, to learn Spanish, which also has a global reach across the Americas. And some specialists in Mandarin and Arabic will always be required. But otherwise, English will take you everywhere. Because the English language has taken all before it: absorbed everything from Hindi (‘bungalow’) to Persian (‘pyjamas’), from Irish (‘smithereens’) to Dutch (‘spook’). It has morphed into Pidgin: when speaking in West Africa, Prince Charles expressed thankfulness for his good fortune in Nigerian Pidgin: “God dun butta my bread.” English is shape-shifting and endlessly adaptive, inventing new words annually (‘selfie’, ‘Brexit’) itself.

The greatest incentive for learning a language is simply necessity. Jean-Claude Juncker indeed speaks excellent English – then, who is going to speak to him in his native Luxembourgish?

All languages have their particular charms and strengths and I’m grateful that my endeavours in German introduced me to the uniquely German genius for the compound abstract noun, the most famous of which is ‘schadenfreude’ – pleasure in the misfortune of others. My favourite of all is ‘verschlimmbesserung’ – the improvement that makes things worse.

There’s a lot of that about! @MaryKenny4.

Weekend Magazine


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