Philip Hensher: Why bother with a foreign language?

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The Independent Online

A survey just published by the Association of Graduate Recruiters invited employers to rate the different abilities, qualities and skills they looked for in prospective employees. It makes interesting reading. Among the most important abilities were such vague, almost personal qualities such as ability to work in a team, oral communication and "problem solving", whatever that may mean.

Formal skills, however, were rated as less important, and one perhaps surprising ability was rated very far down. Almost all the employers asked said that competence in a foreign language was "unimportant".

Given that the employers questioned were not local organisations, but often major multinationals, this may seem a little surprising. But, from the point of view of Coca-Cola or Unilever or Shell or whoever, English is just the international language of business. The only requirement to speak anything different is when talking to people outside the international aristocracy of the Anglophone bureaucracy.

To such people, speaking a foreign language has to be regarded in terms of cost-benefit analysis. It is immensely expensive to teach any given executive to speak Arabic, or Mandarin, or even French. The financial benefits which would flow directly from such an investment are most unlikely to match it. Far cheaper, in any given area of operations, anywhere in the world, to pay 20 per cent over his local salary to, say, the nearest junior lecturer in English Literature to mediate between the company and its temporary subjects.

It might be thought, too, that no far-flung company will want to encourage its employees to become too involved with a local culture, or to hold meetings in anything but the official lingua franca. Indeed, the whole modus operandi of most multinationals is constructed on an imperial lack of respect for local traditions. Just as the British empire was not built on the idea of robbing locals of resources, but far more importantly, constructing vast new markets for our own indigenous goods, so modern-day multinationals are interested in shaping local cultures until they prove receptive to its own goods.

There is an ingenious argument against the business world's lack of interest in foreign languages, and an idealistic one. The ingenious one, framed by the British Council in a report earlier this year, is that until very recently native English speakers enjoyed a considerable advantage over speakers of other European languages; they could always find a second-language speaker of English within a mile or two. Paradoxically, the success of English is going to erode this advantage. As English becomes, quite literally, a universal language of business, the advantage will start to return to those who can communicate in any other language as well.

The idealistic one, which will carry very little weight, is simply that the less we can talk to each other, rather than simply efficiently communicate, the less we can really regard ourselves as human. The less we understand each other's cultures through the way our interlocutors talk when most themselves, the worse the world slowly grows. I don't suppose that cuts any mustard with the cost-benefit boys of international business, I'm afraid.

Give the poor filmgoer a break

Johnny Depp is almost my favourite actor in the world, and when I heard that, added to his hilarious Jack Sparrow, the new Pirates of the Caribbean included Bill Nighy as a squid-faced villain, I dashed off to the Clapham Picture House, tenner in hand.

My God, though, it outstays its welcome. After two hours and the third reappearance of a very expensive CGI giant octopus, the popcorn long finished, my boyfriend was whining "Is it going to stop soon?" What happened to the virtues of the 90-minute movie? It's absurd to stretch this, or that ghastly King Kong remake, out to the length of Tarkovsky's Stalker. And why does everything these days, from American Pie to The Lord of the Rings, have to be a trilogy?

Please, someone, make a brilliant, amusing, one-off, 90-minute adventure. Failing that, could cinemas please reintroduce that pleasant feature of cinema-going in my youth, the interval? Foolish question: you'd get up and never go back.

* When they got home, we are told, the Italian football fans sang Queen's "We Are The Champions". How terribly sad that the representatives of a great musical nation couldn't have thought of anything more representative of national pride, or less hideously vulgar. But I don't blame them for not singing the Italian national anthem, "Fratelli d'Italia", which must be the most dreary and forgettable of all national anthems.

True, we could have chosen "Jerusalem" or "Rule Britannia", so one can't complain - Wagner said that the whole character of the British people was perfectly expressed by the first eight notes of "Rule Britannia". But why the newly united Italy didn't take the most famous and singable chorus from that most celebrated of nationalist operas, Verdi's Nabucco, and make "Va Pensiero" their national anthem is beyond the wit of man to understand.

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