It is easy to believe that, as native English speakers, we have a stupendous advantage over those who have to learn the lingua franca of our age. But there's a price to be paid for speaking the world's most widely spoken language from birth, and it is that you are vastly outnumbered by those who speak it as a second (third, fourth or fifth) language. And while they bawl out their Eurovision songs, present their learned papers, or chatter away in their multi-national groups, you – the native speaker – are the odd one out. You can – mostly – understand them, but unless you adopt a measure of English bilingualism, they can find it nigh impossible to understand you.
Now I should start by apologising to all those who find that my efforts to communicate in a foreign tongue grate on their ear – at least I try. But I'm starting to find the ubiquity of a lowest-common denominator English a bit tiresome. A few years ago, one strain of it was branded Globish (English in 1,500 words), and – of course – it's the possibility of reducing English to such basics that has made it so adept a means of communication. Increasingly, though, I find myself hankering for the sort of English which, say, makes the sequence of events clear by recognising a pluperfect tense, expresses diffidence or conditionality with the subjunctive, and inserts the correct tense after "since".
Many professional linguists would doubtless say that there is no such thing as correct usage, only custom and practice, and they would add – with a gentle rap on my knuckles – that language changes, as all living things are wont to do. But it would just be so, well, relaxing to be able to include the occasional subordinate clause and use idiom and irony in public discourse from time to time without the risk of being misunderstood.
At a conference last week, one contributor, whose English was beyond superlative, began by expressing his linguistic envy of the native speaker who was sharing the platform. He had no need to, but I understood what he felt. It is looking more and more as though the future will hold one English, a minority English, which is recognisably descended from the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and another, mass, English that is no more than a tool of basic international communication.
And the problem with mere functionality is that it is highly infectious and "good enough" leaves no incentive for improvement. How long might it be, I wonder, before complicated "native" English becomes exotic, and we join the rest of the world in talking to each other in Globish.
How Russia's '28 Up' flatters Britain
Bouquets have, rightly, rained down on Michael Apted for 56 Up, the latest in his ITV series that was built on the Jesuit saying: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." And in many respects his subjects have borne out the thesis, while reinforcing today's anxieties about Britain's poor record of social mobility. Against that, as one of the producers also remarked, the 56-year-olds mostly display admirable fortitude, regardless of their estate, with the less successful tending to blame themselves for not seizing the opportunities that came along.
On Monday, 56 Up was followed by the no less telling Born in the USSR – 28 Up. The subjects, all aged seven when the Soviet Union fell apart, have weathered changes of a ferocity unlike anything ever faced by Apted's Britons. A Kyrgyz had taken his young family to Siberia in search of work; two of the women had left children with their grandparents and rarely saw them. Several had seen violence, death, even murder and suicide, pass close by. One young man, unhappily adopted by a Florida couple after the first programme, was still not at home in his new continent, but had no one to return to. Only Anton, from a privileged family in Soviet times, seemed to have skated effortlessly to a pleasant job on a magazine.
Unintentionally, I'm sure, but 28 Up served to cast Britain's class-bound stasis in a rather more positive light, as evidence of reassuring, and historically remarkable, social stability.