An Imperial Hangover
For a small city in the Netherlands’ nethermost lands, Maastricht attracts plenty of British people. Most of them come to study at the university, whose British contingent has swelled in recent years thanks to an extensive catalogue of English-taught programmes, not to mention an impressive social media presence. These students are drawn to the Netherlands knowing that learning the local language is unnecessary. Most Dutch people, particularly the young, are tremendously proficient in English, which allows foreign students to combine the experience of living in a foreign country with the security of carrying out everyday life in their own tongue.
It’s not just the British who flock to Maastricht. Students are drawn from all over the world. But what distinguishes the native English speakers – be they from the UK, US, Canada, Australia – is their lack of proficiency in any other language than English. This could hurt them. A generation of monolinguals reflects poorly on its nation’s school system and culture. Even by the time I selected my GCSE subjects around the age of fifteen it was no longer mandatory to include a foreign language among my choices. Looking back, to me that speaks of close-mindedness. Is it pride in Britain’s imperial past that makes the people reluctant to adopt foreign tongues? Germany, as the engine of the European Union, for example, could have a case for demanding other countries to learn German. But the prevailing attitude among English-speaking monolinguals seems to be that if one is already proficient in English then there is little or no need to learn other languages. To a degree, they’re right, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.
Language barriers are not as fixed as people think. If one cannot smash through them through the instant adoption of a new language, there are still ways in which one can circumvent these barriers and feel at least partly integrated in the wider culture. I speak Dutch, for example, when purchasing things in a shop, having memorised all the necessary phrases. Doing this is better than nothing, but I am aware that this is a mechanical mode of language which is not dynamic. My Dutch only works if the person I’m talking to says what I expect him or her to say in a given situation. (The repetitive nature of retail makes this a pretty safe assumption.) But if the conversation should veer away from this script then I am ill-equipped to pursue it further.
There is also the question of culture. It is debatable to what extent one can truly understand a country if reluctant to learn the language. So much can be deduced about the mindset of a nation by the way it talks. Study the collection of idioms that sprang up in Soviet Russia and you immediately tap into a sense of mass suspicion and oppression. One might observe the lack of politeness forms in ordinary Mandarin and infer a pragmatism and straightforwardness about the people. Or take the parting phrases of several European languages, all of which imply a future reunion (“arrivederci”, “à bientôt”, “Auf Wiedersehen”).
What exactly these examples tell us about their speakers’ culture is open to interpretation, while other linguistic traits may reflect more explicit cultural characteristics. Clues to a nation’s culture are often embedded in its language and survive long after the events that gave rise to them fade from memory. In order to ‘get’ a nation’s culture, one must first trawl through its language.
One might shrug off calls for multilingualism, particularly in the Netherlands, on grounds that it is hard to learn the language when the local population is so ready and willing to speak English. This is a fair objection. Even if you only speak English you are still a step ahead of much of the world. But one could equally argue that Britain and its language’s former dominance has been to the detriment of its prospective foreign language learners. With a looming referendum on EU membership, this may be the case for yet some time.
By Lorenzo Gaertner