Britain needs to hear more foreign languagesby Richard Dawkins / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
A legend of uncertain provenance has it that Winston Churchill, addressing a French audience about lessons learned from looking back on his own past, inadvertently raised a laugh: “Quand je regarde mon derrière, je vois qu’il est divisé en deux parties égales.” Most Anglos know enough French to get the joke. But alas, our knowledge doesn’t go much further than Churchill’s own. Whatever languages we may have learned at school—French and German in my case (as well as classical Greek and Latin) we may be able to read a bit, but our spoken language performance should mantle us in shame.
When I visit universities in Scandinavia or the Netherlands it goes without saying that everybody there speaks English fluently. The same applies to almost everyone I meet outside the university: shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, bartenders, people I stop in the street to ask the way. Can you imagine a visitor to England addressing a London cabbie in French or German? And you’d have little more luck with a Fellow of the Royal Society.
The conventional explanation is that, because English is so widely spoken, we don’t need to learn any other language. Biologists like me tend to be suspicious of “need” as an explanation for anything. A long-discredited alternative to Darwinism invoked “need” as the driver of evolution: ancestral giraffes needed to reach high foliage and their energetic striving to do so somehow called longer necks into existence. But for “need” to translate itself into action, there has to be another step in the argument. The ancestral giraffe mightily stretched its neck upwards and so the bones and muscles lengthened and—well, you know the rest. The true Darwinian mechanism, of course, is that those individual giraffes that succeeded in satisfying the need survived to pass on their genetic tendency to do so.
It is conceivable that a student’s perceived career-need to learn English provided the causal mechanism of a redoubled effort in the classroom. And it is possible that we whose native language is English take a deliberate decision not to bother with other languages.
The following alternative explanation should be taken seriously because, unlike the “need” hypothesis, there is something we can do about it. English is much more widely spoken than any other European language. The world is continually bombarded by English (especially American) films, songs, television shows and soap operas. All Europeans are exposed to English on a daily basis, and they pick up English in something like the way any child learns her native language. The infant doesn’t strive to satisfy a perceived “need” to communicate. She effortlessly picks up her native language because it is there. Even adults can learn in something like the same way although we lose part of our childhood ability to absorb language. My point is that we Anglos are largely deprived of daily exposure to any language other than our own. Even when we travel abroad, we have a hard time improving our language skills because so many whom we meet are eager to speak English.
But I said the “immersion” theory, unlike the “need” theory, prompts a remedy for our monoglottish disgrace. We can change the policy of our television stations. Night after night on British television we’ll see news footage of a foreign politician, football manager, police spokesman, tennis player, or random vox pop in the street. We are allowed a few seconds of French or German, say. But then the authentic voice fades and is drowned by that of an interpreter (technically not true dubbing but “lectoring”). I’ve even heard this happen when the original speaker is a great orator or statesman: Charles de Gaulle, say. That is lamentable for a reason over and above the main point of this article. In the case of a historic statesman, we want to hear the orator’s own voice—the cadences, the emphases, the dramatic pauses, the calculated switches from strong passion to confidential quiet. And we can get these though we may not understand the words. We do not want the expressionless voice of a jobbing interpreter, or even an interpreter who makes an effort towards a more dramatic rendering. Even when the speaker is no de Gaulle but an ordinary citizen interviewed in the street, we want the opportunity to learn French, or German or Spanish or whatever it is, in something like the way so many Europeans pick up English from their television news.
The power of the “immersion effect” is incidentally demonstrated by the memetic spread of American expressions to Britain. And the “upspeak” of British youth, whereby statements sound like questions, can probably be traced to Australian soap operas. I believe it is the same process, inflated to the level of language itself, which accounts for the proficiency in English of many European nations.
When it comes to the cinema, countries are divided into those that dub and those that subtitle. Germany, Spain and Italy have dubbing cultures. (German audiences recognise the voice of “the German Sean Connery” as readily as we recognise Connery himself.) For feature films there may be respectable defences of dubbing, although I always prefer subtitles. But back in the daily ephemera of news broadcasting where the choice is between subtitling or voice-over, there is no decent defence of the voice-over. Subtitles are always better.
There are those who say they “prefer” voice-over rather than subtitles. But frivolous personal preferences should be outweighed by serious educational advantages which go in only one direction. I strongly suspect that a change to a sustained subtitling policy would improve our language skills and go some way towards relieving our national shame.