Monday, February 15, 2016

Learn a language in 2016, Britons are urged

The British Council has urged people to learn a new language in 2016. Fair enough, it’s a good idea in itself, and such promotion is part of what the BC does. But is it really a good idea for most people? What do they gain from it?

As pointed out in the article, it can make holidays more fun, enabling you to interact with the world around you rather than simply observe it. The advantages of this range from simply asking where the bathroom is or buying a ticket at the railway station, to the less practical but far more interesting ability to read the local newspapers and hear what people are talking about. Understanding what is going on around you and learning what matters to people are a far better way of getting to know a place than just reading the guide book and staring at churches.

A language is a route into a culture, the literature is has produced, the way it is currently moving, how it thinks and behaves, its moral values and personal assumptions. All of this can be quite fascinating and instructive.

A language is an unusual addition to a CV in England, and so can be attractive to an employer. Attractiveness to employers is a very good thing indeed.

There has long been a kind of understanding among English people that any foreigner worth talking to already speaks English. This is true up to a point, but not much of a point. English is the lingua franca of business, culture, politics, communications, and most things that matter to people around the world, but there are a lot of things going on in other languages that we miss, and might not want to miss.

Learning languages is, then, in my opinion, an excellent thing. I make my living helping people to do it, after all. But there is another side to the question.

Learning a language talks a very long time. Several months of immersion, or years of classroom study, to acquire basic competence, and basic competence is rarely enough for anything more than a tourist. As I frequently have to point out, half a language is no use to anyone, so unless you can achieve the right level of competence you are unfortunately wasting your time.

In Spain, professionals and aspiring professionals know that they must have a high level of communicative competence in English, and they work hard to achieve it, and their parents spend a lot of money to help them achieve it. The Spanish education system only aims at providing a B1 level, which is not an independent user level, and is no use to an employer. It might just do for a traveller. In any case, it usually fails to provide even that, which is great for my business, but not so great for the average Spanish student, who can’t afford private tuition over a period of years, or may not realize until it’s too late that what he’s been promised by his high school is not enough.

For a Spanish teenager with ambition, or for their parents, the effort and the investment are certainly worth making. For a young English person, possibly not, unless you have a very specific professional goal in mind, such as diplomacy.

So do listen to the British Council and learn a language this year. You really will be opening up all the possibilities that they offer, but be aware of the time and effort, and money, it will involve. Also, once you learn one language, and open up a culture you were barely aware of, you won’t want to stop.

But that, I imagine, is where the real fun lies.

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