How the English could get let behind in the global race

BAND E TIMOR, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 3: British Army soldier from the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regi

A British solider and his interpreters question an Afghan in Kandahar in 2008 - Credit: Getty Images

John Kampfner, author of the much discussed Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country and a regular contributor to The New European, has written in the New Statesman that “monolingualism is one of the enduring motifs of British mediocrity”. 

It is hard to query the basic accuracy of his observation, but we should probably substitute “English” for “British”. In Scotland, if we exclude the 400,000 English incomers, a good third of the population are bilingual in Scots and English. And some tens of thousands are bilingual in English and Scots Gaelic.

In Wales, bilingualism is even more widespread, with many of those who are not bilingual being English incomers: English expatriates form around 20% of the population. Recent statistics show that approximately 30% of the population of Wales can speak Welsh, so we can suppose that, even allowing for the fact that there are English expats who have learnt the language of their new country, almost 40% of Welsh people in Wales are not monolingual.

The same, sadly, cannot be said of English people in England. It is true that something like 8% of the inhabitants of England – well over three million – do have a mother tongue other than English, and most of these people are also proficient in English. But our teenagers generally are possibly amongst the most monolingual in Europe, especially since 2004 when the education minister Estelle Morris removed the requirement for British schoolchildren to study a language after the age of 14. Numbers of students studying languages to A-level and at university have plummeted since then, and a number of language departments have had to close, reducing the availability of language courses nationwide.

This is unfortunate because language skills benefit our society as a whole. The cultural agility and cognitive benefits which come from being able to switch from one language to another are invaluable for our country’s international relations, international business, and diplomacy. English monolingualism has been deplored by the British Chambers of Commerce, who argue that business needs people with competence in the reading, writing and speaking of at least one foreign language and suggest that it would be particularly helpful to have British graduates who are fluent not only in French, German and Spanish, but also in Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Chinese – recognising that Chinese is not just Mandarin but several languages, with Cantonese and Hokkien being perhaps particularly significant. We surely also need the same kind of competence in the sciences and the arts.

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The armed forces should also not be forgotten. The British army experienced great difficulties in Afghanistan because it had let training lapse in the main Afghan languages Dari and Pashto, and therefore had to employ Afghan interpreters for communication and surveillance purposes. Many of these interpreters were targeted for reprisals by the Taliban, and some were killed. Our subsequent record of allowing endangered Afghan interpreters to take refuge in this country has not been impressive. Currently, the Defence Centre for Language and Culture in Bedfordshire does offer training in Farsi (Persian) and Dari – which are essentially the same language; French; Russian; Spanish; and Arabic (which is best considered a number of related languages: Iraqi and Moroccan Arabic are very different and hardly mutually intelligible). 

It would be very helpful if the 92% of us who have English as our mother tongue could collectively recognise that monolingualism deprives people of many pleasures and sources of knowledge, as well as of opportunities for developing new ways of engaging with the world and other peoples, encountering new ways of looking at the world, and living and functioning fully and effectively in a non-anglophone environment. 

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Why would a German employer – or a British exporter, for that matter – take on a young English person who can’t speak German when they could employ a young German who can speak English?


Varieties of the Persian language are spoken not only in Persia – Iran – but also in Tajikistan and, by 75% of the population, in Afghanistan  In these three countries the language is generally known, respectively, as Farsi, Tajik and Dari. Tajik is also the indigenous language of parts of Uzbekistan.

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