It is a common lament that the British are bad at languages. At first glance, this is inarguably true. Few educated Brits can chat unselfconsciously in French. Yet ordinary Swedes or Dutchmen can tell jokes and explain complicated ideas in perfectly idiomatic English.
It’s our fault, isn’t it?
Well, not quite. Let’s leave the matter of individual competence behind and zoom outwards to look at the wider ‘network effects’ of learning a foreign language. Let’s assume you are Dutch. It is immediately obvious which foreign language to learn first — English. But for a native English speaker there’s a quandary. Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese or Malay could all make a competing case. You could spend years learning Russian only to end up living in Shanghai, where it would be little use. French is useful in many countries. But a Dutch expat or tourist will find English useful everywhere. Foreigners don’t learn English to talk to us — they learn it to talk to each other.
It is also easier for a Dutchman to learn English than vice versa. By the age of 25, flemophones have been exposed to 10,000 hours of subtitled English-language television. I have never seen a Dutch film. There are 100 times more websites in the language of Shakespeare than in the language of, um, you know, a famous Dutch writer. As for scientific papers, no contest. The secrets to cold fusion will not be first published in Tagalog or Welsh.
But here’s the clincher. Suppose I do try to learn Dutch, because my life’s dream is to retire to Hindeloopen. For this to be worthwhile, it is not enough for me to speak tolerable Dutch. I would only really start to benefit once I reached a level of fluency where I can speak Dutch better than the average Dutchman speaks English. This would take years. A friend of mine, a linguist, learnt almost no Dutch living in Amsterdam since everyone switched to English in his presence. Budapest was worse: so few non-natives speak their language that Hungarians don’t know what a foreign accent sounds like. Instead of hailing him as a foreigner who had heroically mastered their intractable language, people assumed he was a Hungarian — but a dimwitted one with a speech defect.
The upshot? Every hour a continental European spends improving their English may bring several hundred times more value than a Briton can gain from an hour learning a European language. It’s not our fault.
This is, incidentally, an argument for teaching Latin in British schools. Why bet the farm on a single living language, when you can teach the rudiments of language itself? If they never travel abroad, their English grammar will be better for learning Latin. If they end up living in Buenos Aires, it will make learning Spanish easier. It is a hedged bet.
But a bigger point here is that the dominance of English is just one of many examples of the extreme network effect — of the disproportionality which invariably arises in a more connected world. Before the days of cheap air travel, the Internet and cheap telephony, learning the language of your near neighbours (in our case France) was the obvious thing to do. So the Dutch might learn German and the Finns Swedish. There were natural firebreaks and limits to scale.
Not any more. Winner takes all. Widespread languages get more widespread. Megacities get more mega. The mega rich get megaricher. Ninety per cent of UK web searches take place on Google. Amazon owns 30 per cent of US e-commerce. A bank run in Spain has repercussions in New York. And the world no longer even pretends to obey the Newtonian laws for which all its institutions — laws, tax regimes and economic theories — were designed.