A few months ago, I started writing an article with the stated purpose of inspiring more native English speakers to open their eyes to the potential in language study. The cause is an everlasting one, often considered peripheral by Brits and Americans, and continually overlooked. I drew the picture of monolingualism as a prison, and almost hesitated to publish the words because this is such a strong image. Prisoners are trapped because of choices they have made, or situations they have found themselves in. They are stigmatised, struggling for hope and expected to mend their ways.
So are you prisoners who think they’re kings?
In today’s Britain, it’s very easy to connect to people from abroad. You only need to switch on a computer, open a browser window and off you go. It’s no hassle, everyone does you the favour of communicating in English and the convenience of knowing a world language is undeniable. What pleasure to know they all bow to your linguistic rule, that they all found your native language important enough to study it for years!
But as you walk the world as the king of English, you tread only where others allow you to. The foreign business partners you know can close their doors to you more easily than anyone else can. New contacts may make a joke in their language and completely exclude you, and what you know is that they have the right to do this.
There are dangers in the job market, too: Everyone else learnt your language, so they know one more than you. They aren’t smarter, but by definition they are now more skilled. They come and play on your home ground whenever they want, but you build a little prison for yourself and sit at home looking out of the window, wondering what a real experience of Spain or China or Greece is like. Is that really the best you can do?
The threat is an opportunity
I do believe that sharing these lines with readers who evidently love language learning is the start of a true conversation, and perhaps a tough look at whether you consider foreign languages useful or not. Because ultimately, this is not an impossible endeavour and it is not a tool. You want to do this for fun, and all those perceived threats do not have to be dangerous.
Working with the risks is the secret behind many successes, and in this case my view is that the risk of a prisoner is not that he is trapped forever. It’s only when you consider yourself the king of a prison that you have trouble getting out, right? My view for anyone living in the prison of a monolingual existence is to get out of jail. After all, it’s free.
Here are some of the messages I received about these lines when I shared them with my newsletter subscribers:
“ People that do not learn modern languages can’t understand other world cultures.” José Cobos
“As a native English speaker (I’m from the US, but currently studying/living in Germany), I think it’s overdue that we, as global citizens, have such a conversation. “ Neo Nkherenye
“I agree with your thoughts as an American and primarily an English speaker but they would probably be construed as being too hostile by many people.” Shawn Tucker
What do you think?