In a Twitter exchange last week, a former colleague flagged up the negative rhetoric surrounding language learning in this country. The exchange was sparked by a BBC News headline Britons ‘nervous to speak foreign language when abroad’ from a report by Katherine Sellgren based on a recent Populus poll commissioned by the British Council which surveyed just over 2000 UK adults about using languages abroad. Dr Jonathan Ervine (Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Bangor University) followed up our exchange with a blog post Did you miss the good news about foreign languages?. Ervine rightly picks up on the fact that a positive statistic is buried at the bottom of the report, and that the negative spin of the headline doesn’t allow the good news to emerge that in fact nearly half of Brits are keen to try out their language skills when holidaying abroad. But the positive statistic that “48% said they enjoyed trying out their language skills while on holiday” needs to be recognised as a modest and short-lived attempt to speak in another language. The British Council report itself indicates that those trying out language skills in this way are reliant on basic ‘key phrases to get by’ such as ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and ‘Do you speak English?’. As Brits and as linguists, we have so much more to offer than that. With 40% of Brits saying they are embarrassed by their foreign language skills, we need to start thinking about our languages performance anxiety. Nerves about using languages are inevitable, whether on holiday, working abroad, or in the workplace or socially in this country. Most language learners go through the same process. We’ve all dealt with that feeling of intense embarrassment when you make a slip-up that has unintended consequences (such as the time I managed to say to my German exchange partner as a teenager that I needed to ‘get into the toilet’ instead of ‘go to the toilet’, which sent her into fits of giggles). But overcoming these minor gaffes can lead to untold rewards. Research published in April 2015 has shown that speaking another language changes your view of the world. The research paper itself is called “Two Languages, Two Minds” and shows that people behave differently depending on which language they speak. Switching into a whole other mindset is something most linguists do without thinking, but now the research seems to offer scientific proof of this. I sometimes tell my students that I am “Helen” in the UK, “Hélène” in France, and “Elena” in Italy (I’m lucky to have a ‘translatable’ name to illustrate the point, at least for the main languages I speak). I switch gear and behave like a French person or an Italian when writing up reports, planning my social gatherings, or ordering drinks at a cafe. In France, I’ll have a kir at apéro time, in Italy I wouldn’t dream of ordering a cappuccino after midday; back in England it never even crosses my mind to order a kir, or that there’s a problem with drinking milky coffee after lunch. In France, I’ll use deferential polite language to professors I am examining with, in Italy I’ll address them by their title ‘professore’; in England I’ll use first names even for colleagues I’ve only just met. It has become something ingrained and innate that I have another language-based persona, and it’s extremely rewarding. Imagine if we, as a nation of high level linguists, could comfortably and instinctively behave like a goal-oriented German (see the research mentioned above), structure an argument like the French do, and work within the cultural hierarchies of the Japanese workplace, for example. And that that was the norm, rather than the exception. The benefits of overcoming our language nerves (and our related lack of commitment to language learning) are not just about the personal satisfaction of having engaged on a culturally nuanced and meaningful level with colleagues or friends in Germany, France, or Japan, but they are of course much more wide-ranging. If we can change the national rhetoric and recognise that languages are important and useful in all sorts of contexts, whether foreign travel, business, or social uses, we can start to change our whole way of doing things, and for the better. Accepting our linguistic weaknesses means getting over the feeling that speaking Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic is somehow profoundly disconcerting and disorientating (or even worse, an unnecessary pain to put ourselves through). Language nerves are part and parcel of being a linguist. It means relinquishing some control of our communication habits and allowing ourselves to be transformed into a whole other person as we take on another way of speaking. Nerves about using languages can be tackled in many inventive ways, including getting comfortable with different listening, viewing, and speaking habits through strategies such as:
- Listening to songs. Not just nursery rhymes or ‘Frère Jacques’ but current chart songs with real lyrics and good tunes that stick in our heads with the words attached to them.
- Watching TV. Without subtitles, encouraging us to focus in on the story or action and pay attention to how they do things.
- Tandem work. Pairing up via Skype or Face-Time with language learners abroad and setting ground-rules which help break down the self-conscious barriers.
Getting good at languages means constantly watching and listening for how others perform in another language. Because being a linguist is like being a performer or an actor. You have to inhabit a whole other persona. And like all the best actors, this doesn’t mean just putting on a temporary façade; you have to enter a whole new world, and a different way of thinking and behaving. Good linguists are brilliant performers, and it’s time we started to recognise that. If the film industry has achievement ceremonies like The Oscars, and the pop music industry has The Brits and the Grammy Awards, what can the languages industry do to honour the performance achievements of our linguists whose brilliant work has gone unnoticed for too long in this country?