On speaking English

From The Two Canberras: Essays on public policy by Jenny Stewart, published by Ginninderra Press

As a schoolgirl, I remember being taught Esperanto by an enthusiastic teacher, a post-war refugee from the horrors of Europe, who believed that if only the world had access to a common language, there would be less conflict and misunderstanding. It was a noble vision, but of course Esperanto – an artificial construction based on a number of European languages – never caught on.

There is little doubt that English is now the international language – of trade, commerce, travel and diplomacy. If the cause of world peace seems no further advanced than it was forty years ago, at least we are beginning to conduct our quarrels in a common language.

English has also become the international language of scholarship. Academic conferences are conducted in English, and thanks perhaps to the ever-expanding European Union, more and more European academics are writing and publishing in English. Dutch colleagues I spoke to at a recent public administration conference I attended in Potsdam told me that, increasingly, they are teaching their postgraduates directly in English.

As native English speakers, I suppose we should be pleased about all this. Everyone learns our language, so we do not have to try to learn theirs. If at times that means we must become adept at deciphering English spoken with strange accents and inflections, that seems a small price to pay for speaking the lingua franca.

In any case, many non-natives speak and write English better than we do ourselves. This is because they learn the language properly, unlike our poor Australian schoolchildren who for several decades have received little formal grounding in English grammar, punctuation and syntax.

I have to confess, though, to some misgivings. It is not just that most English speakers believe that they do not need to learn other languages, and language study has been steadily declining in our schools. English itself is being affected by its status as the hegemonic language.

We still borrow prolifically from other languages when we have to – witness the influx of Arabic words, such as jihad, fatwa and even madrasa – since the advent of Al Qaeda. But we don’t borrow expressions or idioms as we once did. Think, for example, of the many German words that were once the heritage of every educated person. Few Australians today would understand the meaning of weltschmerz, zeitgeist, or even angst. Our monolingualism means that we are losing our ear for the words of others. A friend who worked for Banque Nationale de Paris simply gave up trying to get Australians to pronounce the name of her employer properly.

Because basic English is relatively easy to learn, we misunderstand the knowledge required to use it well. Australian universities make a lot of money out of international students, most of them from Asia, but the minimum English competence required to study an Australian university course is way too low. As anyone who has tried to learn another language knows, it is possible to understand what others are saying, but being able to express yourself properly requires years of study.

The speakers of the lingua franca have another burden. That is that there is no space for us that is our own. When my Dutch colleagues want to go back to ‘their’ world, they speak Dutch to each other. It is the basis of their private selves, their literature, and their heritage.

As speakers and writers of English, our private world does not have this linguistic distinction. Not only that, because we share English with other countries in the English-speaking world, our own literature struggles to hold its own against the literature of the UK, the US and even Canada. It is a problem that has grown worse, rather than improved over the last several decades.

There are no books that every Australian has read. Indeed the only novel that seems to be universally prescribed in the high school years is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel set in the deep south of the United States with few points of reference for the average Australian fourteen-year-old. We assume that because Americans speak English, their world is just as comprehensible to us as our own. But as Bernard Shaw observed, Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language. The same surely applies to Australia and the United States.

What is the current situation with regard to teaching foreign languages in this country? The answer seems to be that, while foreign languages (particularly Asian languages) are considered to be a good thing, most children acquire only a smattering of languages other than English. There is no compulsion to learn another language, and with the globalisation of English, little apparent necessity to do so.

But being able to order a meal in a restaurant is not the main reason for acquiring another language. Learning a language is a pathway to another world of thinking, speaking and even seeing. And as an intellectual exercise it had few equals.

At a more practical level, it may be that English will continue its advance to the point where most people will speak a syncretic language that combines their own language with chunks of English. But the hegemony of English reflects geo-political power, and geo-political power can change. English is pre-eminent now because of the economic and cultural might of the US. But American dominance will not last forever. If China becomes the next world superpower, we may all be wishing that, like Kevin Rudd, we had studied Mandarin.

From The Two Canberras: Essays on public policy by Jenny Stewart, published by Ginninderra Press

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