The Raised Faculty Building on Sidgwick SiteLouis Ashworth

“But you’re British.” In a quaint hostel in Xiamen, a coastal city dubbed the “Mansion Gate” of China, I’ve been helping two new French arrivals translate their needs into Chinese Mandarin. The lack of English language between both parties has been making the process difficult, and it would be cruel not to step in and help. Caught in the act, a passing German soon discovers I’m British only to astutely declare that he’s never met a multilingual Brit.

Wanting to refute his seemingly absurd claim, instead I find myself reddening in shame. My parents and most of my British friends are monolingual. Their abridged reason is that where English is the world’s lingua franca, on the outset there seems no urgent need to learn an additional language. The age-old maxim confessed when a Brit is expressing remorse at their poor language skills is conventionally, “but I’m so bad at languages!” As a nation, we do not have the plethora of multilingual exposure and resources that many others take for granted. In 2019, this should no longer be an excuse.

Spending time in a country that speaks your target language is, in my view, compulsory

Had I been brought up in Switzerland, I would have grown up surrounded by German, French, Italian, Romansh (and English). Had I been born Chinese, I would have spoken a provincial dialect at home and Chinese Mandarin at school. Like many countries around the world, had I not been born British, I’d have been pushed to learn English fluently before completing my secondary education. Brits shouldn’t look to these nations in awe; the linguistic vibrancy in other countries is simply a way of life, and multilingualism the norm.

The latest data from the European Commission (2016) shows the percentage of the population aged 25–64 reporting to know one or more foreign languages in the UK is 34.6%. This rises to 60.1% in France, 78.7% in Germany, and a staggering 96.6% in Sweden. The average across the European Union is 64.6%, which sets us apart not only linguistically, but culturally.

To make matters worse, a 2018 survey report by the British Council on language trends found that “just over a third (34%) of state secondary schools report that leaving the European Union is having a negative impact on language learning, either through student motivation and/or parental attitudes towards the subject”. In the aftermath of Brexit, there has never been a better time for the UK to plunge itself into foreign language learning.

Learning how to say ‘Hello’ in your lab partner’s language could ignite your foreign language journey

Everyone’s account of learning foreign languages is unique. I started Chinese Mandarin ab initio for my undergraduate degree, alongside maintaining French. I’m hoping to pick up Spanish this year, and either Arabic or Hebrew once I’ve graduated. Sounds impressive? It’s not. Foreign languages require daily maintenance, drive and commitment.

Spending time in a country that speaks your target language is, in my view, compulsory. My undergraduate degree saw me spend a year as an exchange student in Beijing. Slowly but surely, I would pick up certain mannerisms by observing the way the language manifested itself into people’s behaviour. Instead of talking about the weather, I would talk about food. I stopped saying please, thank you and sorry as much. The way I talked became more direct.

The language seemed to have more meaning; a Chinese chengyu (a four-character idiom) could convey sentences of significance in English, which couldn’t be directly translated. Aside from (accidentally) developing a thick northern Chinese accent through regularly chatting to Beijing taxi drivers, being totally immersed in a Chinese language environment rapidly enhanced my comprehension of China.

My experience with the French language, by comparison, has been more relaxed. Having spent many a summer in France, I’ve fallen in love with the opinionated nature of its people, the high regard for food and it’s somewhat satirical humour. Again, when in France I internalise certain mannerisms and sometimes even find myself dressing differently in an attempt not only to speak French, but to be French.


Mountain View

The MML faculty must do more to prepare low income students for the year abroad

The psychological benefits of picking up a foreign language are in abundance. One of the most ubiquitous stats regurgitated when foreign language learning is mentioned is the delayed onset of dementia: for monolingual adults, the mean age for the first signs of dementia are visible at 71.4 years, and for bilingual and multilingual adults it is 75.5 years. Aside from this, being able to show an appreciation for other cultures heightens one’s empathy and awareness of individual’s needs.

In addition, the U.K. is foregoing economic opportunity in the face of our “linguaphobia”. A report looking into the costs to the UK of language deficiencies as a barrier to engagement in exporting, suggested the gross effect of language barriers for the UK is costing 3.5% of GDP. The analysis of the report demonstrated that “language difficulties are the largest single contributor to perceived cultural problems, even when information, relationship difficulties, and legal problems are taken into account”.

Cambridge is heavily comprised of international students. Latest data from the University shows that for the academic year 2018/19, of the 22,693 students admitted, 146 countries were represented. The University also offers language courses for which colleges may have available funding. Learning how to say “Hello” in your lab partner’s language could ignite your foreign language journey. Cambridge students have a plethora of cultural insight at their fingertips; it’s time to access that through language if we are to remain globally competitive in a bilingual world.