Podium: Net opens up the world of language

From the inaugural lecture given by the Professor of Languages for the Professions at City University, London

WE ARE living in a period of momentous change. The shape of the world map is undergoing constant modification, and world horizons are widening all the time. A whole new range of professional skills has been acquired and the concept of literacy needs to be re-defined, extending as it does to using Microsoft Word, not to mention surfing the Net, to get the latest information on using Linux, plus knowing how to print out the data and get the photocopier to back on and staple in a single run without wasting more than 10 sheets of paper. To this should now be added being able to read in more than one language (not forgetting Spike Milligan's educated woman, who spoke eight languages - and said nothing intelligent in any of them). And that's not just reading the paper in more than one language, but surfing the Web in several of them.

Some people may feel complacent. English, after all, is the lingua franca of the world (let alone cyberspace), and it is probably true to say that any educated foreigner now will have "done" English, quite possibly starting in primary school at the age of eight, going on family exchanges at 13, to summer schools at 15, and (increasingly) coming over to University in Britain at 20 or 22. But here the British are at a disadvantage: what language should we learn? French is most widely taught at school, but Spanish is spoken more worldwide (it is the majority language of the Caribbean, for example, not to mention los Yunait, where Hispanics are concentrated in Nueva York, La Florida, Nuestra Senora de los Angeles and San Francisco de Ass, to give them their old Spanish names).

German has turned out to be useful as a modus operandi in Eastern Europe, where Russian was once de rigueur, and is now de trop. The "hard" languages (such as Arabic and Chinese) require a gung-ho attitude in order to make progress, and any language is a great cultural pastime for the dilettante. American firms in particular are uncompromising in their view that English is numero uno for the head honcho, (even in a country where some 25 million people have Spanish as their first language) and some international companies are following suit in Germany and Scandinavia. But this is no more than schadenfreude, as such people can talk another language when they want to; they can get the information they need, not just what has been filtered into English for them, and they will know what people are saying behind their backs over the coffee.

We are setting up a language support scheme online for members of Lloyd's and the International Underwriting Association, with support from the City Corporation. In February we went to have talks at the Ecole Nationale d'Assurance in Paris. Their international officer speaks excellent English, but she spoke French all day, because (as she gleefully pointed out) we should speak French in Paris, and she (of course) would speak English in London. Language skills give us a head start when breaking into new markets, making contact with new partners or getting the measure of new rivals. A laissez-faire attitude towards languages will simply lead to lost opportunities .

People should be proud to speak another language; research being conducted for the new London Languages Guidebook (sponsored by the City Corporation) shows that 25 per cent or more of London schoolchildren speak something other than English at home, and the total number of languages spoken in London now exceeds 275; that does not include the people who go to classes in order to write what they can speak fluently with their grandparents, or the ones who (increasingly) want to learn the language of their partners' grandparents in order to benefit from the cultural diversity and not to feel left out at family gatherings.

International companies have noticed this, and the range of fluent language- speakers (with UK university qualifications) is increasingly given as a reason for relocating to London.

Undoubtedly, it is important to have a command of the basics of any language, and we find, logically enough, that our students are keen on travel and social situations.

At work, it is important to be familiar as much with the mot juste as with the faux ami, and to be able to communicate in a particular field. A little learning can, however, be a dangerous thing. The French still insist that Churchill once started a speech in which he intended to say, "When I look at my past, I see it is divided into two halves," by saying, "Lorsque je regarde mon derriere, je vois..." but as with many good sayings, it is probably just wishful thinking.

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