Why the English are being left behind in the world of business

Today’s post is a guest post from my lovely husband, Ian.

In my work as a Blue Badge tourist guide, I have the opportunity to meet people from all around the world, from all walks of life.  The job also gives me the chance to use my fluent German in my professional life, which opens up a great many possibilities.

I recently had the pleasure of guiding a group of families from Luxembourg, on a tour of Harry Potter film locations throughout England (one of my numerous special interest tours).  As most people know, Luxembourg is very much a multilingual nation.  The group I worked with had Luxembourgish (which, incidentally, sounds like a mish-mash of German, Dutch, French and bits of other languages, a little like the country and its people I suppose) as their native language but the tour was in German, the main international and media language in their part of Luxembourg.  While I was not surprised to discover that most of the adults had a good level of competence in several languages, including a number who spoke perfect, unaccented English despite never spending more than short holidays in Britain, I was amazed by the incredible language skills demonstrated by the children, who were aged between around 5 and 13.

In addition to their home language they all spoke at least fairly fluent German, certainly enough to have read or watched Harry Potter in German, and to follow my tour and explanations and to talk and joke with me with no problems at all.  Officially, I was told they start to learn German at the age of 5, but it was clear that earlier exposure through the media had given them all a massive head-start.  While the younger ones “only” spoke the two languages, most of the older ones had gone several steps further.  They start to learn English at 12, but those of 9 or 10 already had a solid grasp of the language, and coped perfectly well with being in England for the week.  There were several of them who were capable of reading books and watching films in English.  Most also have at least a conversational command of French, another of the official languages of their country.

One of my abiding memories of the week is a conversation with two of the older children, aged around 12 or 13, who both proudly told me that they were fluent in four languages, and had a good knowledge of two others each.  Having studied for many years to reach fluency in one, I was in awe of their abilities.

Of course, part of the reason for Luxembourgers’ language skills is cultural – their country has several official languages and people live in close proximity to borders with other nations.  But even so, I could not help comparing the attitude of the children I met with kids (and indeed adults) in Britain, for whom learning languages is a chore and largely seen as unnecessary.  The children on my tour took huge delight and pride in being multilingual, appreciating the opportunities for communication and experience it opens up for them.

These are the young people the next generation of Britons will be competing with in education and employment in a few years.  While the oft-cited argument that “the whole world speaks English” does have some validity – and there is no doubt that being a native English speaker is a major advantage – in a multinational and multicultural world, someone with six languages always trumps a comparably qualified person with one, even if it is English.

Apart from the sheer joy of meeting children who take such pleasure in learning and speaking other languages, what I took away from that week most of all was the contrast with the insular attitude in Britain.  Rather than dismissing languages as a non-essential part of the curriculum, how amazing would it be if the average British kid of 12 could enjoy books, films, and conversations in six languages, opening them up to a world of experience, culture and potential?

Ian Braisby works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide and as a German into English translator. He and I blog together at IAB Tours and he can also be contacted via his tourism and guided tours website.

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