The Third Leader: Schadenfreude for beginners

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Oh, dear. Once again, our foreign language failings are brought to notice. Despite every incentive, invitation and entreaty to rejoice, luxuriate and frolic in the delights of another tongue, the number of young people learning one remains in decline. There was another appeal for more effort yesterday, citing economic necessity and cultural reward, from Thomas Matussek, the departing German ambassador to Britain.

Sadly, his latest call is unlikely to have much effect, even though it was in English. There is a prevalent view here that the Age of Babel is over, that the two successive anglophone empires, British and American, have won a final victory for monoglottery through a combination of force, money, information technology and loud speaking, often repeated more than once, more slowly.

In vain, I fear, does Herr Matussek pray in aid the beauties of other languages; not for the British the thrill of reading Proust, Goethe or Pushkin in the original, the liberation from squinting at sub- or surtitles, the intellectual and spiritual growth that comes from immersion in the ways of others. In vain, too, have I in the past listed the advantages of a foreign language: the opportunity to eavesdrop, shrug and use expansive hand gestures, manage a Premiership side, and surprise Scandinavians; and the ability to pretend you're not British, always useful.

Nil desperandum, in the words of a previous lingua franca (and look what happened to that). Time to go deeper. We must play upon that leading national characteristic: compulsive competitiveness, fired by a fierce antipathy to being shown up, fed by an insatiable need to feel superior. Ready? Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls: George W Bush speaks Spanish.

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