Com­mon sense in any lan­guage

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

We used to have a say­ing in the An­glo­sphere dur­ing the Cold War 1970s that op­ti­mists learned Rus­sian while pes­simists learned Chi­nese. It was a know­ing, if flip­pant, ex­pres­sion of a con­trary view that the Soviet Union was not the West’s big­gest chal­lenger. Ul­ti­mately China would re-emerge as the dom­i­nant world power.

That seemed a lu­di­crously dis­tant propo­si­tion at a time when China was emerg­ing from the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76) and Richard Nixon, then US Pres­i­dent, had only just ini­ti­ated his pivot to­ward Bei­jing. Af­ter that started an era of re­form and open­ing-up in China and the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Soviet power crum­bled, the United States emerged as the lone su­per­power and China con­tin­ued on an eco­nomic long march that is see­ing it chal­lenge the US in the present decade for the ti­tle of world’s largest econ­omy.

So were all those op­ti­mistic An­glo­phones who learned Rus­sian wast­ing their time? Are all those pes­simists who learned Chi­nese poised to reap the ben­e­fits? The ev­i­dence is that most of the An­glo­sphere learned nei­ther and re­mained stub­bornly mono­lin­gual, while the rest of the world was busy learn­ing English. English is now the undis­puted lan­guage of international ex­change. French, which once dom­i­nated di­plo­macy, has all but given up the ghost.

Around the world English is the lin­gua franca among mil­lions of non-na­tive speak­ers. Business deals and treaties are ne­go­ti­ated via the medium of what has be­come the num­ber one world lan­guage. That may rep­re­sent some kind of tri­umph for the An­glo­sphere, but it is scarcely a per­sonal vic­tory for in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans, Bri­tons or other An­glo­phones.

They are less and less likely to speak an­other lan­guage.

An of­fi­cial 2013 Bri­tish Coun­cil re­port re­vealed an “alarm­ing short­age” of peo­ple able to speak the 10 lan­guages vi­tal to the coun­try’s fu­ture pros­per­ity and global stand­ing. Chi­nese fig­ured promi­nently at num­ber four on the Bri­tish Coun­cil list.

De­spite that warn­ing, sub­se­quent ev­i­dence shows that lan­guage learn­ing has de­clined fur­ther in Bri­tish schools. A 2015 re­port said Bri­tish teach­ers found at­tract­ing pupils to study lan­guages af­ter the age of 16 was a “chal­lenge”. One small con­so­la­tion was a “mod­est in­crease” — from a low base — in the num­ber of schools of­fer­ing Chi­nese, a lan­guage “rec­og­nized as cru­cial to the United King­dom’s long-term com­pet­i­tive­ness”.

In the US, the sit­u­a­tion is even worse. A 2015 sur­vey showed that bud­get cuts, low en­roll­ments and teacher short­ages meant Amer­i­cans were fall­ing be­hind the rest of the world. And less than 1 per­cent of Amer­i­can adults were pro­fi­cient in a for­eign lan­guage that they stud­ied at school, in an era when one in five Amer­i­can jobs are tied to international trade.

Sadly, a largely mono­lin­gual An­glo­sphere can prob­a­bly con­tinue to thrive in a glob­al­ized world de­spite the dire warnings of the ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists. Now that ev­ery­one else seems to speak English, it may be tempt­ing to ask, “what’s the prob­lem”.

The prob­lem is per­haps that learn­ing a lan­guage also means learn­ing a cul­ture and learn­ing a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing. It can also open up many pos­si­bil­i­ties that have noth­ing to do with business deals or international pol­i­tics — ac­cess to cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture, per­sonal friend­ships across bor­ders.

It is not too far­fetched to the­o­rize that the in­su­lar­ity so re­cently dis­played by vot­ers in the UK and the US might have at least some con­nec­tion to the lan­guage is­sue.

It has never been eas­ier than now to learn a lan­guage through a range of on­line re­sources, many of them free. They even say it is good for your brain. Stud­ies say bilin­gual­ism can de­lay the on­set of de­men­tia.

So, as you start out on your New Year res­o­lu­tions, for­get the gym mem­ber­ship (you know you won’t last more than a month) and learn a lan­guage in­stead.

Haoyun! Good luck!

The au­thor is a se­nior editorial con­sul­tant for China Daily UK.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.