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Poor language skills damage our economy

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There's a big debate going on at the BBC website:


which contains many public reactions to a news item on the claim made in a House of Lords report that poor language skills are having a negative effect on Britain's business performance - relating to the current situation in state secondary schools in England (Note: England, NOT Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) whereby foreign languages only have to be studied by children up to the age of 14. Most of the reactions are positive about studying foreign languages, but there are quite a few that support the view that there is no point in learning a foreign language as all the world trades in English.

What do YOU think?

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There's a lot about trading successfully that monolingual English speakers miss out on - like the understanding that when people speak a foreign language (English to British people's customers), they're really expressing their own cultural habits, but in the foreign language. When things go wrong with the communication, it's much more likely to be due to cultural problems than 'pure' language problems.

Learning to express yourself in a foreign language gives you all sorts of insights into what's going on when two people from different cultures try to communicate with each other, which the monolinguist usually doesn't have. That's why Swedes are such successful exporters …

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David writes:

When things go wrong with the communication, it's much more likely to be due to cultural problems than 'pure' language problems.

I attended a presentation on this subject by a very entertaining speaker, John Mole, who began by putting up a list of statements on an OHP and asking us to guess who said what about whom, e.g.

They wear funny clothes.

The don't wash often enough.


See: http://www.johnmole.com

We were all wrong, because it turned out that all the statements had been made by foreigners about the British. Regarding the second of the above statements, language is not necessarily the barrier. The speaker cited an Australian joke:

"How do you hide a dollar from a Pom?"

"Put it under the soap."

There's probably some truth in the message behind the joke. Brits arriving in Australia, and being unfamiliar with the extremely hot and humid temperatures, often fail to realise that one shower a day may not be enough.

Language problems often arise when a non-native speaker of English mistranslates a word or phrase from his/her own language into English. For example, be wary if a German says "Eventually we will sign this contract", as the word "eventuell" in German means "possibly" or "perhaps". The same problem may arise if you are dealing with a French native speaker. Such words and phrases are known as "false friends". The verb "müssen" ("must") in German creates problems when used with a negative ("nicht" = "not"). If a German says "You must not do this", s/he may really mean "You don't have to do that", which is the correct translation of "Sie müssen das nicht tun". "Sie dürfen das nicht tun", however, means "You must not (are not allowed) to do that".

A Swedish friend of mine told me the following linguistic joke:

A Swede on his first journey to London stopped at the top of an escalator in the underground. An attendant noticed him standing there and asked if he needed assistance. The Swede pointed to a notice stating "Dogs must be carried". "What's the problem?" asked the the attendant. "I don't have a dog", replied the Swede.

David probably understands what this is all about :-)

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If businesses aren't prepared to invest in training people properly in language skills then at the very least it would be useful to make them aware of the mistakes that speakers of different languages typically make and give the wrong impression of what they really intend to say. I have noticed even quite experienced native German speakers of English making the "eventually" mistake. Auxiliary verbs such as "must", "ought to", "should", "could" are full of pitfalls.

I am currently negotiating with Japanese colleagues in connection with a forthcoming conference. There are enormous differences between the way we do things in Europe and the way things are done in Japan. I have found, however, that we have a lot of common ground regarding our sense of humour. We seem to enjoy the same jokes. I also enjoyed a great game of golf with a Japanese professor.

When talking to German and American colleagues I have learned to avoid irony, as neither seems to understand it in the same way as the British.

Raising cultural awareness is very useful. A few years ago I attended a conference for language trainers in the airline industry. A representative of Swissair ran a very interesting workshop on cultural awareness training for cabin crew, check-in staff, et al.

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The ubiquity of English can lead to a sense of superiority among native speakers of the language when they encounter those who speak it as a second language. During the summer of 2000 I presented a paper at a computer-assisted language learning conference in Kobe, Japan. One of the people chairing my session was a professor at an Ivy League university in the States. I saw her again at one of the sessions where an Asian speaker was doing a CALL presentation. The Ivy League professor recognised me and took me to one side to say how awful she thought the presenter's English was. I pointed out to her that the presenter was lecturing about a complex subject in a language other than his own, something that I wouldn't do lightly even in my own teaching languages, French and German. She wasn't pleased with this observation and feigned surprise when I was selected to give a toast at the conference dinner and began my speech by saying and explaining the immortal words "Howway the lads", the Newcastle football chant, which Jim Callaghan taught President Jimmy Carter to say when he visited Tyneside. She also stood with her back to the Kabuki show put on by the wife of an American university teacher who worked in Japan. What a narrow vision some English speakers have of the world beyond their shores! There's none so blind as those who will not see...

I agree with Graham about the affinity between the British and the Japanese. We are both island peoples and share many common perspectives. When I was in Kobe and Kyoto, I did see instances of what we Europeans would probably call "exotic", such as the wooden temples of Kobe and Kyoto and the geisha haunts of Gion. But I also saw a people with incredible technological expertise, as exemplified by their bridges and causeways and their ability to achieve an enviable quality of life in a country with a huge population crowded into coastal areas. I also loved what I regard as their poetic use of, not their errors in, the English language: "Happy soon" said the poster outside my hotel on Rokko Island, off the coast at Kobe.

David Wilson


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David writes:

I agree with Graham about the affinity between the British and the Japanese. We are both island peoples and share many common perspectives.

...we both drive on the left too!

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