Just occasionally, I’m asked to speak on some other topic than politics — which can require some careful thought. Last Friday, I went to Trent College in Long Eaton, Notts, to give the keynote speech to groups of students (or as we used to say, pupils) from half a dozen schools in the region, gathered together at Trent College for a day of lectures and debates to celebrate and promote language learning.
I found this particularly difficult, as I’ve always taken the counter-consensual view that we in the UK spend far too much time beating up on ourselves for our failure to master foreign tongues, when perhaps we should be celebrating and exploiting the fact that we own the world’s most widely-used language. The language of Chaucer (nearly), of Shakespeare and Milton, of Tennyson and Tolkien. The language of the King James Bible. And of international trade and commerce and services and diplomacy. The language of the internet. The language of the Anglosphere. Need I go on?
But I could scarcely embarrass my hosts by appearing to denigrate the skills they were promoting, so I faced the task of meeting expectations while not straying too far from what I actually think. I started out by greeting the assembled throng with “Good Morning” in English, French, Korean and Thai — about the only words I ever learned in the latter three. (At my age I find I’m even starting to forget much of the English I once knew). I admitted that I had lived and worked in Seoul, and Bangkok, and Hong Kong and Malaysia, and tried, in a desultory fashion and without success, to learn the languages of those countries.
Admittedly I had learned French at school, and got a decent result at O Level. And in 1996, working as MD of the UK subsidiary of a French group, I had started a course of private tuition in French, only to fall by the wayside when I found the frustration of being unable to express myself readily in French quite unbearable. Today, I can find my way through a menu in French (a useful skill in Brussels & Strasbourg), but that’s about it
Nonetheless, I stressed that Britain was nothing if not a great global trading nation (and will be more so as and when we leave the stultifying embrace of the EU). In our rapidly globalising environment, therefore, the ability to work in another language should be a big plus. After all, as the old cliché has it, “We buy in our own language, but we sell in the customer’s language”.
But that, of course, raises the question: which language(s)? It’s difficult for a seventeen-year-old to guess which countries she (they were mostly girls) might be working in over the next few decades. My own experience as an ex-pat was that I would work in a country for two or three years, then move to another. If I’d learned the first language, I’d still have had to start all over again in the next country. And it depends when you ask the question. Ten years ago, Russia was all the rage, and bright young things were urged to learn Russian. But the Russian economy is based on energy exports, and there’s been a far-reaching global revolution in energy. With new oil extraction technologies, and cheap shale-gas everywhere, it’s looking more than likely that Russia will end up sitting on a stockpile of very expensive fossil fuel deposits in inaccessible places that no one wants to buy. Russia’s not such a big country: It has a population only about double that of the UK, and a smaller GDP.
I guess it’s a fair bet that Chinese/Mandarin will remain important throughout this century, though it’s not the easiest language to learn. And in terms of numbers, Spanish is big and growing, and the second language of the USA.
And what about careers? I told the youngsters about my Brussels assistant Francesca Salierno, from Napoli, who is fluent in four languages. But she is not primarily a linguist — she’s a lawyer, with an Italian law degree. And while her languages are useful in Brux, they’re not critical to her work. Which brings us to an important point. Unless you plan a career in teaching or in interpretation (I described the splendid career opportunities available — for now — in the European institutions), then your languages merely facilitate your main task, which may be trade, or diplomacy, or the law, or journalism, or whatever. So think about the skills and qualifications you need for your primary task, as well as learning the languages that may perhaps one day facilitate it.
I touched on the usual motherhood-and-apple-pie story of how languages facilitate cultural exchanges and an understanding of other countries. But having enjoyed a long international career in the USA, Europe and Asia, without the benefit of foreign languages, I must say I felt a bit of a fraud. I hope Trent College thinks it got fair value. And I wish the students every success in their future careers.