Climb aboard the fast train to a multi-lingual union
Our experience of Europe should be suffused with a whiff of first love
Sunday 15 June 1997
Face it. Sooner or later you are going to find yourself stuck in a train compartment with a group of Finns or Hungarians enjoying themselves in their own language. You are not going to understand a word. And just as you begin to drum your fingers with irritation, one of the Finns or Hungarians is going to break into tiresomely good English to ask if you would mind not doing that. Everyone will then revert to uproarious Finnish or Hungarian.
This kind of experience can have two consequences. The first is to traumatise people and burn them up with the need for revenge, which they usually take by adopting a xenophobic attitude to Europe. The second is to impress upon people the need to learn foreign languages, which they do by attending adult evening classes.
Sadly however, this well-intentioned group of language-learners quickly come up against the limits of what can possibly be learnt in two hours a week and they end up no better equipped than before.
What struck me from my recent trip to Luxembourg was what a difference it can make if you are brought up speaking half the languages of the Union fluently. If you grow up speaking not only your native dialect but also German and French instinctively - and then you go on to learn English, Italian and Portuguese at school - there will be little reason to feel paranoid anywhere in Europe.
There are millions of bilingual Europeans, not only in Luxembourg, but spread out over the border regions of the continent. There are German- speaking French people in Strasbourg, for example, and French-speaking Italians in Ventimiglia. What a fantastic advantage these people have over us monolingual Neanderthals. Imagine a world in which the British had been brought up speaking foreign languages as their own. Deprived children on Glasgow housing estates would be able to give directions in German to lost Austrian backpackers; shop-keepers in Birmingham could ask whether their customers spoke Spanish or Italian.
And suddenly those foreign celebrities whom we instinctively assumed to be thicker than our own (because they spoke English less well), would come across in all their native glory. The subtleties of Jacques Chirac's Gallic wit and Helmut Kohl's Teutonic good nature would no longer fall on deaf ears this side of the channel. In short they would not be regarded as foreigners at all.
Much more importantly, teenagers from right across the country would be able to chat up teenagers of the opposite sex in diverse languages. In fact this would be by far the best way to sell children the concept of foreign language lessons, and of the EU itself. I actually think that all European children of post-pubertal age should be sent abroad on a compulsory basis to spend a year living in another family's home.
Not only would they all end up speaking in a foreign language, but in successful cases, their early experience of Europe could be suffused with the enduringly attractive whiff of first love. Who, having rolled in the hay of Gascogny (or even Flanders) aged 14, will ever forget the allure of the EU? In the long term there will the prospect of more multi-lingual families and so the project will move forward, until we are all Luxembourgeois.
All right so it's a project that Stalin might have fancied, but the difference is that he would have done it as a means of ensuring that we all ended up speaking Russian. That was what put paid to the Soviet Union. A union where everyone in the train compartment can speak everyone else's language nicely is quite another thing.
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