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…