Richard Garner: Hoping that someone speaks English is not enough in a globalised world

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The Independent Online

For far too long Britons have seemed to almost bask in the glory of being dubbed the language "dunces" of the Western world.

Our attitude was summed up for me when my (German-speaking) brother and a friend went on holiday to Germany and got involved in an argument with a car-parking attendant. "Come here," shouted the friend. "This peasant doesn't speak English."

Imagine the reverse happening in a car park in Cleethorpes. Would the car-parking attendant have been able to speak German? (And this would have been in the heady days when four times as many British youngsters studied German at university as they do today.) I think you know what the answer would be.

The most serious point about our lack of language knowledge is that – with business being on an ever-more global footing – it simply will not be enough to smile politely and hope somebody speaks English.

I find it almost encouraging to note, as the researchers do, that some employers are refusing to take on people who only speak one language. They, at least, recognise the increasing requirements of modern-day business communication.

They also put forward as a solution the idea that higher education in Britain should do more to encourage youngsters to study community languages – such as Urdu and Cantonese – at university.

It really is most extraordinary that you cannot study the four most-commonly spoken community languages in the UK at degree level (at least until September when one of them, Bengali, comes on stream at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London).

Their argument holds some merit. After all, why should we frown on someone who wants to improve their standard of Urdu just because we consider it easy for them as it is the language they speak at home? Or is there something more at work here? After all, if they were the product of a liaison between a French woman and English man we would not frown on them if they wanted to study French at university.