Letters: British neglect of languages

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British neglect of languages is no cause for shame

Sir: So Britons are at the bottom of the league in Europe for learning foreign languages are they (report, 23 February)? A finer statement of the obvious would be hard to find.

While there are many advantages to be gained by English speakers from studying any of the many world languages none remotely compares with the advantages to be gained by non English-speakers from learning our language. This is not arrogance or cultural imperialism; it is a simple statement of fact.

There is, and can be, only one true world language. For whatever reasons the world has chosen English. Choosing a language to learn when you do not have native English is a no-brainer, while choosing between French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Hindi or any of the other hundreds of world languages is a lottery for native English speakers.

In order to learn to speak a language well, as for example most Scandinavians speak English, you have to start early. How should parents of primary school children set about making their choice? And why should their children commit such huge efforts as will be required, to learn a language that may never be of any use to them?

I studied French and Italian at school and greatly enjoyed it but I never found any use for either language. Later I married a Brazilian and lived in Brazil and then, naturally, became fluent in Portuguese, thanks in part I must admit to having previously studied other Latin languages. I am very much in favour of multilingualism, and have two multilingual children to prove it, but I am very much against berating the British and their education system for a mere coincidence of our history.

Less sackcloth and more pragmatism with languages please. We should seek to promote better understanding between nations in whatever common language they have. With English alone I can already communicate with 51 per cent of Europeans, according to your report, and with a large percentage of the rest of the world. My advice to primary school kids would be to study whatever language is easily available in your school, just to open up the pathways in the brain, and then keep your powder dry until you have a connection with one particular country that justifies the massive effort involved in learning its language.

ANDREW KELSEY

GUILDEN MORDEN, HERTFORDSHIRE

A 'rambling' Prince and his 'smug' critics

Sir: None of us can choose our parents or the circumstances of our upbringing, but I wonder how the smug critics of Prince Charles would react if they had been born into the Royal Family. Would they have discharged the obligations of their situation to the best of their ability and opportunity, or would they have cut and run or worse ?

No one is perfect, but I admire many of the things which Prince Charles says and does, and our society would be the worse without him.

HARRY TUBBS

KINGSCOTE, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Sir: Poor old Charles: like all pseudo-intellectuals, he places too much importance on his own thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately he commits these to paper, and when they leak (as he likes them to from time to time) they are shown to be half-baked ramblings. Speak to mum - maybe the position of court jester is still open.

DAVID ROSS

KIDDERMINSTER, WORCESTERSHIRE

Sir: What an appalling man Prince Charles is indeed. To put it in plain words he is a snob, an imperialist and spoilt.

My husband, who is British Chinese, was an interpreter during the state visit of the Chinese president in the late 1990s. Prince Charles did indeed boycott a banquet and it was in protest of China's occupation of Tibet. This is rich coming from a man whose mother's palace is full of stolen Chinese treasures taken from the Beijing summer palace, burnt down at the end of Britain's colonial occupation of China.

According to my husband the President was not happy on seeing a particular painting hanging in Buckingham Palace that was a "lost" Chinese treasure. Prince Charles is lost in a haze of privilege and protection. He should also understand that Hong Kong was only a success story because of the indomitable character of the Chinese people and continues to be so long after the departure of the imperialists.

LAURA JI

MINSTER LOVELL, OXFORDSHIRE

Sir: What is wrong with a Prince of Wales who says what he really thinks, rather than what we think he should think? Better this than some po-faced yes-man clinging meekly to a journalist's view of what a king-in-waiting should be.

At least he affords us a bit of merriment occasionally, which is more than can be said for most so-called leaders of the establishment or the snide and self-important commentators who regale us with their ideas of what is proper. And if the Government really feels irritated or undermined by his comments, sometimes loopy, sometimes really quite apt, it surely reveals a massive lack of self-confidence on their part.

Keep up the good work, old Prince.

DAVID GIBBS

LONDON SW4

Sir: HRH Prince Charles censures the rigmarole of the ceremony marking Hong Kong's secession of sovereignty to the People's Republic of China. Apparently Charles criticises the public deification of an outdated elite, calling China's unelected heads of state "old waxworks". I presume that this marks for HRH a new direction in self-deprecating comic irony.

SEAN CORDELL

SHEFFIELD

Freedom of speech, but with respect

Sir: It is ironic that the historian David Irving is sentenced to three years imprisonment for Holocaust denial at the same time that the controversy surrounding the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad still rages on.

However deplorable Irving's views may have been, the sentence is a clear denial of the freedom of speech; and yet this is the same, apparently absolute principle which European papers have cited in order to assert their right to publish cartoons of the Holy Prophet, no matter how inaccurate or how offensive they may be to Muslims, as if Muslims must be taught a lesson. (The British papers have proved to be an exception and must be congratulated for the responsible way that they have handled this matter by not reprinting those offensive cartoons.)

Islam upholds the principle of freedom of speech but with due responsibility and regard to the feelings of other people and communities. Islam believes in the truth of all Prophets of God, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Respect for other faiths is the basis of civilised society, particularly when we are living in an increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural world where peace and harmony can only be achieved through understanding the sensitivities of others.

The best way to counter extreme views is not through offensive cartoons in the press or through curbing of the freedom of speech, but through education and debate. If people are correctly taught that Prophet Muhammad was a man of peace, "Islam" literally meaning "peace", then the actions of a few Muslim "terror" groups would be exposed for what they are, extreme and unrepresentative. Similarly, if people are correctly taught about the murder of millions of Jews and others at the hands of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, then the views people like David Irving would similarly be exposed as extreme and irrelevant.

DR NADEEM MALIK

AHMADIYYA MUSLIM ASSOCIATION UK, MORDEN, SURREY

Sir: Geoff Deane's denial that David Irving has been imprisoned in Austria (letter, 22 February) is a barely-disguised attack on freedom of speech, with no basis in fact. Nevertheless, as your decision to publish it affirms, he has every right to make such a claim, despicable though it is, without fear of imprisonment.

BEN PLOMMER

TRINITY COLLEGE, OXFORD

Murder of infants is still murder

Sir: In her diatribe against the absence of miscarriage of justice in infant homicide cases (15 February), Deborah Orr finishes: "Perhaps if society were less keen to pillory and condemn those adjudged to be bad parents, and more keen to understand and assist them, then the injuries babies can sustain when their parents lose control would not be such a matter for supposition and guesswork."

Roughly the same number of children die at the hands of their carers each year (based on convictions for homicide) as women die at the hands of their partners. There are roughly twice as many women in the UK as children, so in fact, children are at roughly twice the risk of women in this respect - especially the very youngest. Would Ms Orr care to repeat her conclusions about injuries done to innocent infants with regard to battered wives? I'm sure a weasel phrase like "the injuries wives can sustain when their partners lose control" would go down rather well with your readers.

Murder is murder. The fact that the victim is an infant does not make it any less serious. As Lord Goldsmith's review has revealed, the murder of infants is an all too real phenomenon, not one dreamed up by anyone.

ROB WHEATLEY

CONSULTANT PAEDIATRICIAN BLACKPOOL

When cattle die for lack of water

Sir: Your article "Drought threatens the people and wildlife of East Africa" ( 21 February) points out the impact the loss of cattle is having on drought-hit communities.

For the pastoralists of northern Kenya, cattle are their lifeblood - their food, their livelihood, their sole source of wealth. In the communities of Kotulo and Shibir Fatuma where Practical Action has worked for a number of years, 4,000 families have lost over 80 per cent of their livestock in the last three months and now depend on food aid for survival. The few remaining livestock are valued so highly that most people have resorted to feeding them on maize intended for human consumption.

We are now providing the communities with livestock feed, animal drugs and training so that families will have some animals to help them recover once the rains come. Any planned response to the drought should include support for this vital asset.

NICK BURN

INTERNATIONAL DIRECTOR PRACTICAL ACTION RUGBY, WARWICKSHIRE

Amherst, pioneer of germ warfare

Sir: Perhaps David Nardolillo (Letters, 23 February) is wrong and your mis-spelling of Amherst's name was deliberate, in an attempt to distance ourselves from this unpleasant man.

Amherst's main contribution was in the early development of germ warfare by encouraging the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to what we would now refer to as Native Americans. As Amherst wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet in July 1763, any methods "that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race" were to be adopted, including the distribution of infected blankets (the WMDs of that time).

If I was at Amherst College I would be keen to change its name to one with somewhat pleasanter associations.

RICHARD CARTER

LONDON SW15

Slow progress on crowded canals

Sir: Hugh Wilson's solution to our overcrowded roads ("Lock stars", 20 February) may be a little over-enthusiastic.

British Waterways has instigated a huge amount of regeneration in recent years, and transport of large loads by water is environmentally sound. However, canals such as that pictured are already overcrowded. With vessels moored either side and boats passing in both directions, it is necessary to slow down to about 1mph.

The journey to Willesden in Hackney's pilot waste collection scheme covers 11 miles and seven locks. On a crowded waterway this could take up to 18 hours.

ROSEMARY PHILLIPS

KENLEY, SURREY

What is terrorism?

Sir: The question "What is terrorism?" has recently been raised in your columns, and deserves consideration. May I suggest a simple answer? Terrorism is war, carried on by people who can't afford an army. I think the converse is also true: war is terrorism carried on by people who can.

ALASTAIR GRANT

BURWELL, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

On the map

Sir: It is quite common for the Isle of Man to be missed off maps so it was pleasing to have it there in the middle of the Irish Sea on your free, glossy, poster-sized map of the New Europe (21 February). But we shouldn't have been pale mauve because we have never been members of the European Union. Maybe when Albania joins, our government will think again.

M GARLAND

DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN

Feelgood films

Sir: Poor, weary Terence Blacker. Not only has cinema started expressing "essentially safe liberal values" on subjects like "homosexuality, or freedom of speech, or the evil of drug companies, or racial prejudice" ("Feelgood films and the glow of self righteousness", 21 February); but even when it does, "it rarely provokes action". Let's hear it for the homophobic, racist movies of yesteryear. Mr Blacker may, at least, enjoy them without fear of slipping into a "self righteous glow".

STEPHEN BERESFORD

LONDON SE11

Exotic Hamburg

Sir: News of a proposed Reeperbahn revival ("Beatles to boost red-light Hamburg", 21 February) sparked an instant flashback. As a young backpacker visiting Hamburg in the mid-1970s I was taken (by a casual drinking partner) to a private backstreet club off the Reeperbahn. It was filled with cross-dressing men and woman wearing Imperial German Navy-style sailor suits. It proved impossible to get a drink, presumably because of the rather unusual dress code. Does such a place still exist in Hamburg? If not, the world is a poorer place.

BARRY NELSON

BOLAM, COUNTY DURHAM

Choice of leaders

Sir: From my voting papers I notice the Liberal Democrat leadership election is not to be conducted by proportional representation. Personally, I was looking forward to Menzies Campbell as leader Monday to Wednesday and Chris Huhne having a go Thursday and Friday with Simon Hughes allowed the reins at the weekend.

ALAN RAMSDEN

BANBURY, OXFORDSHIRE

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