The Decline and Fall of the English Empire

February 16, 2009

I’ve been putting off writing on a number of converging articles on the role of English and English-learning in Europe, but they continue to appear so I’m giving in. The Economist recently had an article describing “the adverse side-effects of the growing dominance of English.” These side effects, predictably enough, are the increasing indifference of Britons to learning foreign languages, and their further isolation from the rest of the European Union. Interestingly, the BBC also published an article on language-learning in Britain, noting the growing number of schools providing bilingual education — but in local languages like Welsh and Gaelic, languages that may connect children to their heritage at home but do little to help them relate to the rest of the world. Of course learning another language — any other language — has tangible benefits and may even, as a woman in the BBC’s article claims, make children more likely to learn third languages. But the trend does little to counteract the circumstances described in The Economist, which identifies

a fall in language-learning, accelerated since 2003, when foreign languages became voluntary in England and Wales for pupils over 14. That robs them of such benefits as the humility and respect for others that come from learning another language. But given the rise of English, it is rational, says Philippe van Parijs, a Belgian academic.

Van Parijs goes on to predict that “Europeans will become bilingual, except for Anglophones, who are becoming monolingual.”

Today’s London Times also has an column on the way English’s dominant status puts English speakers at a paradoxical disadvantage, focusing on the educational decree mentioned in The Economist that ended the requirement that students learn a foreign language.

Numbers of pupils taking French and German GCSEs have fallen by nearly half since 2001, but were low even then at 347,000 and 135,000 respectively. The scarcity of students specialising in languages at university and beyond is even more alarming. A grand total of 610 started degree courses in German in 2007, while British interpreters are now so rare in Brussels that most official EU translation into English is being done by non native-speakers.

Dismal numbers! While the British are often accused of being “bad at” languages, the Times points out that in fact “more and more native English-speakers see less and less point in learning other languages because so many people speak English, so well, as a foreign language.” The resulting isolation, The Economist claims, means that “just when the British should be happy [about the dominance of English in European politics and culture], some nasty storm clouds are gathering.”



One Response to “The Decline and Fall of the English Empire”

  1. […] Us, Please! As a follow-up to our post from a couple of days ago about English-speakers’ declining interest in learning other […]

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