If our elected representatives can’t do it, what hope is there for common mortals?

This subject leads on – vaguely – from Michael Gove’s outburst against translating fiction, because it prompted me to explore the linguistic skills of some of today’s politicians – ranging from all-powerful to backbenchers.   Leaving aside the question of reading a book in French, Spanish or German, say, could they actually communicate with someone from another country?

The question is, of course, particularly relevant in the anglophone world, where we have grown lazy because of not having to worry about speaking another language, secure in the knowledge that most foreigners will speak English – what’s more, with a level of competency that usually puts to shame any attempts we might make at speaking their language.  The teaching of foreign languages has been in steady decline throughout the UK, but most notably in England where GCSEs in foreign languages have been “in free fall” since 2006 when the government scrapped the need for young people to study at least one FL between the ages of 14 and 16.

So, how do our elected representatives measure up?

In 2004 NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) ran a Parliamentary Languages Challenge.  As well discovering that more MPs speak Latin than a living language, the findings are not wholly surprising:

Over 100 MPs responded to the original challenge and the results show that they speak a total of 22 different languages. However, whilst only a small number of MPs (6%) are currently learning a foreign language, a healthy majority of them (65%) are enthusiastic about learning to speak more languages, if they had the time and opportunity, including one Downing Street-based MP who would like to learn Italian.

[Note: no prizes for guessing who that Downing Street-based MP might have been??!]

Just over a fifth of MPs said they could communicate in German, while only 3% could do this in Spanish and 4.5% in Italian. Some 5.5% said they could communicate in Latin and 3.5% could make themselves understood in Russian. Other languages spoken by MPs included Bengali, British Sign Language, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Gaelic, Hindi, Norwegian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Swedish and Urdu.

A notable exception is Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea, who topped the league with six languages:

…English, Italian, Swedish, French, German and Welsh – and he can also read in another two languages, Danish and Norwegian.
Martin Linton MP said, “Usually the only chance I get to learn a language is on the plane, but it’s surprising how much you can pick up on a two-hour flight. A few useful phrases like ‘How much is this?’ and ‘I can’t afford it’. But if you have the time, it’s far better to go on a course before you travel. It gives your brain a bit of time to absorb the language. If I know I’m going somewhere new on holiday – like I went to Italy this year – I find I can just dip into a Italian phrase book now and then and use the little wasted moments of the day – waiting at the bus stop, queuing for a coffee – to get a few phrases under my belt. It saves an awful lot of trouble when you’re there.
He continued, “I’m always a little reluctant to go to a country where I can’t speak a word of the language. That’s probably why I’ve never had a proper holiday in Spain. I did a weekend break in Barcelona and felt like a prat having to say ‘No hablo Espanol! Habla Ingles?’ about twenty times a day. So Spanish is my next priority. And it can’t be that difficult if you do French and Italian a bit. ‘Eh? No comprendo! Por favor?’.”

As a party, the Lib Dems are probably the most linguistically gifted: 25% of them are bilingual, compared with 18.5% of Conservatives and nearly 15% of Labour respondents.

Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Wales and Northern Ireland, is a double rarity. His first language is Estonian, which makes him one of the relatively few MPs fluent in an accession-country tongue. Three MPs cited Welsh as their mother tongue, one Punjabi.

Opik can also get by happily in German, French and Welsh, in which he aims to become fluent. “When you compare our curriculum to other countries’, it’s risible how little attention we pay to languages,” he said. He thinks MPs should speak more languages but acknowledges that they do better than the general population “probably because of the opportunity they have to travel – and many have been privileged to get expensive educations.”

So much for Westminster, but what politicians at a global level?

Although it may not be best time to talk about Russia’s standing internationally, Putin is renowned for his language skills, and speaks fluent German, English, French and Tartar.   As you can hear from the speech that secured the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, his English is very good – could any European leaders match this level – in Russian – I wonder?

On the other side of the world, Obama recently voiced a plea that Americans should learn to speak another language, and Spanish, in particular.

“>But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English – they’ll learn English – you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.

Obama praised Europeans for their knowledge of multiple languages, and he lamented the fact that most Americans can only “go over to Europe, and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup.’

This stirred up the political commentators like a swarm of hornets – as you can find if you listen to this other youtube clip.  The results of a phone survey showed that only 13% of Americans agreed with Obama and think that Americans should speak other languages. The response of the Republican representatives on the panel is also so stereotyped that it’s hard to take seriously – let’s hope we don’t have to.

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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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8 Responses to If our elected representatives can’t do it, what hope is there for common mortals?

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    Am I being hopelessly idealistic in suggesting that there isanother solution to language problems – Esperanto?

    The problem about learning national or ethnoic languages is that the opportunities to use them are so limited. Learn French and you’re lost and illiterate in Bulgaria, learn Chinese, and you’re at a loss in Russia, and so on. The omnkly solution, as I see it, les in an international auxiliary language, i.e. Esperanto.

  2. lucy says:

    Bill, I can’t help feeling that Esperanto had it’s day and basically failed. A language has to have “living roots” to survive, and be spoken right through society… otherwise, you’re back to where you started from, namely with just an elite being able to communicate in another language. That’s where Esperanto fell short last time.

    However, it’s an interesting point, and maybe someone will give Esperanto (or another common language) another go, and who knows, next time it might work…

  3. Hju says:

    Hi Lucy. I can’t help feeling that Esperanto’s day has still to come. That’s us even on the feelings front!
    “A language has to have living roots to survive” … who says so Lucy? Actually Esperanto IS surviving, being spoken by more people than ever in its history.
    Being easier to learn Esperanto is aimed at non-elites. Those who have the time and money to learn a difficult foreign language like French, Chinese, or English are the true elite.
    “Next time it might work …” well, Esperanto works now; it does exactly what it says on the tin!

  4. David Curtis says:

    If people ask why Esperanto is not already everyone’s second language, having been initiated just over 120 years ago, they should also ask who has been responsible for teaching foreign languages the whole time. Teachers of modern languages are intent upon teaching national languages, and from 1887 their own teachers have poured scorn upon Esperanto without making any serious effort to learn it before doing so. This is a prime example of prejudice having an effect upon generation after generation of children. In my own education I never even heard of Esperanto, and was offered only French, whether I liked it or not. This was meant to teach me not only how to speak, write and read French, but also to be conversant with French culture, but it failed on all counts. When I reached France as a soldier, I was able to say the equivalent of “Sir, you have a pimple on the end of your nose” – which was of no use at all. Thirty years later, having discovered by accident that Esperanto had been suppressed by modern-language teachers, I learned it thoroughly. This enabled me to speak fluently to French Esperantists in France and learn about French culture from them. Using the one language I was also able to achieve a similar result in Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and China. In those countries I also conversed with Bulgarians, Russians, Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese, Mongolians, Ukrainians, Czechs and Slovaks. In addition, I corresponded with Argentinians, Peruvians, Chilians and Brazilians. If it wasn’t so much of an obstacle to the progess of humanity, I would just laugh at anyone who decride the value of learning Esperanto. They are generally teachers of modern languages, unfortunately, so the problem is very serious.

  5. lucy says:

    David and Hju,
    I apologise if you thought my remarks were misjudged. Like you David, I was never given the chance to learn Esperanto – whether at school or university.
    Having spent many years in Italy, I am full of admiration for the role of Latin and its status as a lingua franca – both during Roman times and for centuries after (in politics until the 16th century and, of course, in the church, until much later).
    So if a common language could become established once again, great…

  6. Brian Barker says:

    In my view Bill Chapman has a practical approach. One of several British MP’s, apart from Lembit Opik, include David Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education. However……….

    I hope that the “European Day of Languages” will encourage many people to learn a new language. Especially in the United Kingdom where the interest in learning language seems to be declining.

    Did you know that four schools in Britain have introduced Esperanto, in order to test its propaedeutic values?

    The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester, and I believe the project deserves academic appraisal.

    To see what the language sounds like as well you might like to see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

  7. lucy says:

    Brian, I’ve taken part in the “European Day of Languages” in the past and it certainly helps (a little) to raise awareness. But that’s really interesting to hear about the schools learning Esperanto – I hope it gets good coverage in the press, and also academic support.

  8. strigo says:

    Sorry Lucy, I’m with Hju and David on this. Esperanto works far better than a non-Esperanto speaker can imagine. I know – I was one.
    If you’d like to sample its ‘living roots’, try the brand new ‘Concise Encyclopedia of Esperanto Literature’ by Geoffrey Sutton: in more than 700 pages it details – in English – the lives and literary output of over 300 Esperanto authors worldwide.
    Senator Obama is right: the sooner you start, the better – which is why the Esperanto Association of Britain, as Brian mentions, is sponsoring the educational project ‘Springboard to Languages’, in which pilot primary schools are teaching pupils Esperanto as a stepping stone to learning the hugely more complicated national languages – and now establishing links with schools in Hungary, Germany, Romania, China…
    Bondezirojn,

    Strigo

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