Hundreds of thousands of years ago early humans stumbled upon an elegant way to transplant their thoughts and ideas, which would otherwise have remained hopelessly trapped in their own minds, into other people’s heads, and all without the need for scalpel and stitches. You may not be able to read my mind, but you can listen to it.
However, whereas I might listen to and delight in the enchanting cadence and witty sagacity of a Quevedo sonnet in its original Spanish, others who don’t know how Spanish is encoded would only hear a string of apparently random sounds. In order to ascribe the correct meaning to these sounds, they would need the key to the end-to-end encryption: they would need to know the language.
As the old adage goes, understanding another language is to open another window on to the world. It is as difficult to explain as it is easy to underestimate the richness in knowledge and understanding that multilingualism brings to those fortunate to be able to peer onto a world that has acquired wider horizons and deeper perspectives.
Yet, despite the advantages that speaking other languages bestow, language learning remains a declining trend in the United Kingdom. To get a sense of why this might be, we turn to former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, who, in defending compulsion for foreign language learning in primary schools, observed that some people even take “ a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English”.
There is more to it than the exceptionalism to which all former colonial powers are prone, though. Language learning is often looked on from an absurdly utilitarian perspective that learning a foreign language is only relevant if you holiday in Spain, own a house in France or import car parts from Germany. Yes, of course there is some utility in being able to order dos cervezas or say bonjour to your village baker, but this is not looking at the world through a bright new window; it is more like looking at the world though a pinhole.
The path that the United Kingdom has chosen for itself after Brexit is often described as “Global Britain”. But will Britain ever be truly global by continuing to shout louder in English? Those who love, learn, study, work and trade with us in English will be the ones reaching out globally, while we remain tongue-tied, monolingual and under our insular delusion that what we can see through our pinhole faithfully represents the confines of our globe.
This article appeared originally in The Gryphon, Embley‘s termly chapbook.