Should we learn foreign languages?

We speak a local version of the last remaining super power language and everyone else wants to speak it too. But languages still matter.
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The Independent Online
`Tout le monde etait hyper-ravi," the sales manager said to me. Everyone in the Paris office had been delighted with my visit. Someone from head office in London had come to train them in the use of the computer system - and it had been in French. My German is enough to get by as a tourist and I have just started learning Spanish. I am preparing my oldest son for his French GCSE next summer and we hope he'll do well. But, do languages matter?

The received wisdom in this country is that we are no good at languages and that this is "A Bad Thing" and "A National Disgrace". Our inability to communicate, other than in English, hampers this country's economic development, we are told. We trail far behind the polyglot Asians and other Europeans.

However, is this received wisdom really true? And even if there were some truth in it, why is it so? Do we need to learn foreign languages to the extent that foreigners need to learn ours?

Imagine that your native tongue is Norwegian or Dutch. How important is it for you to learn foreign languages - and which foreign language should you learn first?

Now, imagine that - by a happy accident of birth - you speak the language of the world's only remaining superpower, a language that dominates popular culture and modern business, a language that spreads with the rise of the Internet.

Even if we do decide to learn another language, which one should we choose? For the foreigner there is no choice. They do not learn just any foreign language from age seven (or six, or five): they learn English.

Passing a language school in Madrid a few months ago I noted what was on offer: "Courses in Business English" - there was no mention of any other language.

Perhaps foreigners are not better at languages than we are, perhaps they are just good at English - and that out of necessity. In a hotel foyer in Milan I observed a Japanese tourist approach the porter. Which language did they immediately converse in? Certainly not Japanese or Italian.

There is no one foreign language that offers so much to we British as English offers to non-English speakers. Furthermore, we often don't get the chance to learn.

An English friend of mine works in Sweden and is trying to learn the language. But whenever he speaks to, say, a taxi driver, in Swedish, the reply comes back in English. The taxi driver knows that fluent English would give him so many more options in life. For my friend, well, how many doors worldwide are opened by a good command of Swedish?

I hear similar stories elsewhere and have experienced it at first hand: well-meaning and very polite foreigners are keen to get something of what we already have by an accident of history. They know that we don't need their language as much as they need ours - and it can be frustrating for the Briton who actually wants to learn.

So, are languages for the British a waste of time? Well, no. Speaking French has given me great personal and professional satisfaction, it has enabled me to better appreciate a culture other than my own.

But this is nothing contrasted with what foreigners obtain when they learn just English, and - given this - it is a wonder that we learn any other languages at all.

The writer works in international financial markets data provision. He has travelled extensively in Europe, delivering training in French and English

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