Lost in translation

I’m back in Bariloche, Argentina, with my son and his family and I’m trying out my Spanish. I  started learning it at school and have continued with classes off and on over the years. They say that learning a language is good for us oldies, helping our brains and memories to stay active. But surely, and more importantly, in this globalised world isn’t it crucial to learn to communicate with people from another country, to learn about their lives, to see things from a different perspective?  And, let’s hope – and maybe I’m coming over all 1960s again – couldn’t this work towards mutual understanding and world peace? We could certainly do with a bit more of that these days.  Granddaughter 1 goes to a non-fee-paying secondary school where happily learning a foreign language is seen as important. Indeed a percentage of children going there come from a background where a language other than English is spoken within the family even if not by the children. My grandchildren’s dad is from Barcelona so speaks Catalan, Spanish, and of course English, and is not half bad at French either. How fantastic is that!

British people are notorious for not bothering to learn another language.|People say this insularity comes from living on an island, Others say it comes from extending the empire and therefore our language to other parts of the world. Sadly, the colonial legacy lives on with a kind of internalised imperialism which reinforces class divisions. I have been to, and lived in, countries where people rate themselves a notch or two higher than their fellows because they speak English.  Also uncomfortable is that people assume that a native English speaker actually prefers them to speak English than the local language. Nooooooo – at least in Spain and Latin America let me try with Spanish, please, and in other countries, let’s at least try to master the basics.

People of my generation seem to be afraid of making a fool of themselves trying to speak another language. I once got into a conversation with someone who’d lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years. I asked him why he hadn’t learnt any Cantonese so he could learn more about the culture through access to its literature, poetry, films etc. His response was that ‘the two main Chinese languages are tonal and I’m tone deaf’. Hmmm. Must try harder comes to mind. Did granddaughter 1 have to pass a tonal test before starting Mandarin Chinese. Of course not. Then someone with a science background said ‘I don’t expect people to speak science’. How daft, I’m sure you are thinking. Well, we had been downing a bit of wine.

Programmes on the tele such as A Place in the Sun accentuate this British characteristic – people going to live in various countries with no intention of learning the language even at a functional level. What does it say for your regard, interest and warmth of feeling for the host country – your neighbours, restauranteurs, shop assistants etc, etc? And if they’ve bothered to learn some English, surely a bit of reciprocity and generosity of spirit should be involved. British people just literally seem to want Britain in the Sun. Horrible.

Anyway, I think that it’s a travesty that learning a language is on the wain in schools throughout the UK and and over a third of  university language departments have closed down over the last 15 years. And this at a time when, as stated in a recent report, the lack of language graduates and the ability to engage with the non-English-speaking world is likely to hold back our financial recovery. So why is this happening? Well, it seems that our children and grandchildren think that everyone can speak English. A forum funded by the British Academy stated that this is a common misconception, also pointing out that only a small percentage of research is translated into English. Certainly, in tourist areas it does seem that everyone speaks English – Bariloche is a tourist resort and in shops and cafes locals start speaking to me in English because I don’t look Argentinian. However, scratch the surface and you’ll find that this tourism-driven English is superficial and functional and let’s face it tourist areas tend to be a stereotypical, watered down representation of a country. Thankfully most of the world does not consist of tourist resorts.

And apparently, in their infinite wisdom in 2004 the last government made language-learning not compulsory in British schools after the age of 14. How totally ridiculous. And there is a real concern that schools do not encourage students to take up languages since A levels are blighted by harsh marking which schools believe would have an impact on their league table status. Ofqual has now launched a major inquiry into how modern language A-levels are marked. Happily, the current government is introducing language-learning in primary schools from next year, but this, of course, needs to be followed through in secondaries.

You’d think,wouldn’t you, that it would go without saying that there are loads of reasons to learn a language. For example, on the practical side it enables overseas study and improves employment potential. Research has shown that it hones cognitive and life skills with language learners scoring higher in school at home in reading and maths, and it also helps people to express themselves better in their own language in writing and speaking. Being able to speak a language means you can feel more at ease visiting the real country rather than sticking to tourist areas.

And reading books or watching films in translation or subtitles is a completely different experience than experiencing them in the original since many words and phrases are unique to a culture and cannot be adequately translated.  Also, the way people perceive the world and experience it is couched in their language and understanding it gives an insight into their cultural values and belief systems. And I agree with something I read recently which said learning about, and experiencing, another culture increases understanding of yourself and your own culture because it enables you to see yourself and your own culture from outside. It also said that ‘…a monolingual and monocultural view of the world severely limits your perspective’.

So for all these reasons, let’s encourage our children and grandchildren to learn a language – after all, don’t we want to open up the world to them, not close it off or encourage them to have a narrow confined view of it? And it’s fascinating and fun!… ok, and helps towards world peace and love, as John Lennon might have sung… And on a rather more personal note, apparently studies show that learning a language staves off the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Think I’ll keep up the Spanish classes then.


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