Many, probably the majority, of Britons speak only English and those who may have learnt foreign languages at school are not able to communicate with any proficiency in anything other than English. We, of course, all know this, and I for one think it’s a real shame. Not only do we miss out by not gaining knowledge of other countries and cultures, but we also find our job opportunities restricted. Free movement of people across the EU is not really free to those who do not speak other European languages and do not have the facility for learning another one which may be gained by achieving fluency in something other than your own mother tongue.
I do, in fact, have personal experience of this. Once elected to the European Parliament I thought it would be a good idea to get my ‘O’ level French up to a reasonable standard, partly because it’s useful to speak French in this environment and also because I really think that if you live in another country, even if only for part of the time, you ought to make an effort with their languauge. It’s been a struggle, and after 10 years I think I’m now getting there in that I’ve done media interviews in French and am able to read newspapers and documents. Given the amount of time and graft it’s taken at my time of life, I sincerely wish I’d leant French better at school and got to the standard many of my counterparts from other European countries have reached in English, ie total and effortless fluency.
I was not surprised, therefore, when the European Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban, talked at the culture Committee today about the monolingualism of the British. We are far from reaching the EU target of everyone learning two foreign languages plus their mother tongue. The only ray of hope is the Labour Government’s commitment to introduce foreign language teaching in primary school. Please let’s build on this and give the next generation greater scope for work outside the English speaking world, extensive though that may be.
However, the Brits were praised on our approach to minority ethnic languages, as spoken in particular by immigrant communities. In my contribution to Mr Orban, I mentioned that I had been a governor of an inner London school where there were 39 mother tongue languages spoken (Deptford Park Primary School in Lewisham Borough). He replied by saying he had visited a school in the UK with 100 and was very impressed with the model of community integration and cohesion he saw. This is, of course, excellent news and I hope the British example will be recognised across Europe.