This is the second guest blog for TNS, written by the brilliant, budding young journalist Bea Tridimas. I’m sure many of us, including myself, have considered learning a new language over the lockdown period on one of the many language apps that are widely advertised. I gave the sumptuous Spanish language my time, and after the initial difficulties were overcome, I really started to enjoy it. British people notoriously shy away from learning a second language, and hopefully the following piece makes you consider learning one. A really excellent read. LW
My least favourite part of Christmas dinner is the inevitable ‘call the rellies’ saga. Occasionally, if I am lucky, we squeeze it in between courses and the call will inevitably get cut short. It is not that I do not want to wish my ageing relatives a happy Christmas. It is more that I cannot. And after 22 years, I am not so much ashamed as bored of the seven other members of the family cackling at me as I hold the phone, speechless or murmuring the very few Greek words I couldn’t unlearn even if I tried.
My failure to speak my father’s tongue has haunted me my entire life. From a familial point of view, it is relatively embarrassing but partly excused by a lack of effort on my father’s part. From a societal point of view, it is no big deal, right? Everyone speaks English anyway.
That a large proportion of the world’s population can speak English, in fact, that 1.268 billion voices can converse in these sweet Germanic tones, is something that I think about often. I thought about it when, in the Greek class I finally signed up to, we spent a two-hour lesson studying all the words which Greek has adopted from English – σινεμά pronounced cinema; ταξί pronounced taxi; όπερα pronounced opera…you get the picture. I thought about it when talking to a friend who has been Duolingo-ing French during lockdown because she feels guilty that she holidays in France every year and never says a word of French. I think about it when each time I see road signs in Greece written in English too, I am confronted with the fact that much of modern-day internationalism is designed to concede to my monolingualism.
I recently heard the term ‘English-sceptic’ coined by a journalist who struggled with the dominance of the English language. Whilst I need some time for my thoughts to mature, I do take issue with some of the privileges of English monolingualism that we hardly dare to acknowledge. Mostly, I find that there is some unspoken expectation amongst monolingual English speakers that places the onus of communication onto non-English speakers. (Let me now point out that I speak from my experience of monolingual native English speakers from the UK and not every one of them, for that matter). I do understand that English is the language of the UN, that many countries teach English as the primary second language and that at least 59 countries recognise English as an official language. (And I do understand that, in order to keep its economy barely churning, Greece needs to attract its tourist population through English road signs). I do not suggest that children should skip their EFL classes just to gratify my scepticism. But I do not believe that the permeation of the English language around the globe is a reason for native-English speakers to refrain from learning other languages and rely on the efforts of others.
It is not necessarily the case that native English speakers are reluctant to learn other languages (although I feel some of what I say might suggest this is true). It is that I cannot help but notice a close-mindedness amongst many a monolingual native English speaker. Perhaps it is the fact that 61% of the UK is unlikely to speak another language whilst 25% of Europeans can speak at least two additional languages. Perhaps it is that, in my Greek class, a student questioned why the Greek language was different from English as if by taking the class she expected to confirm that Greek was actually just English in disguise. Or perhaps it is that some can be quick to point out someone’s ‘funny’ accent or comment that the staff ‘didn’t speak English properly’ but go unchecked on their own abysmal rendition of French when holidaying in St Tropez. It is as if we expect others to gratify us with their faultless English, without ever holding ourselves to the same standard: a simple ‘bon-jorr’ or ‘grassy-ass’ suffices.
I also cannot help but think that there exists an inherited entitlement to monolingualism, amongst white Brits, remaining from our colonial past. The fact that such a large proportion of the world speaks English is, undeniably, linked to the British empire. The perceived superiority of Western culture, life and language required that the oppressed learn the language of the oppressor. This is a big conversation, which I won’t get into now, but I will say that I struggle to separate the dominance of the English language from the power structures it once (or still does) attested to.
My point is not that we all ought to go and spend time and money we might not have on language classes – my almost 23 years of struggling is testament to the fact that learning a language is not necessarily easy, or quick, for that matter. My point is to make you aware that you do not need to deliberately seek gratification from non-native English speakers conversing with you in English to benefit from being a monolingual English speaker. My point is to challenge your expectation that others ought to communicate with you in your native tongue whilst you do not need to say much more than ‘hello’ in theirs.
English is not the only language in the world. But the more we treat it like it is, the more it threatens to become so. I do not mean to suggest that my learning Greek will change anything, but it is one step away from monolingualism that I endeavour to take.
Find Bea on insta: @bea_trid