If you are a fan of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, you probably recognise that the correct answer to this question is, “I don’t know, I’ve never kippled.”
If you are a fan of Imperial British writing, you may remember Rudyard’s quote, “What should they know of England, who only England know?” Let’s take that and give it a little linguistic tweak and ask the question,
“What should they know of English, who only English know?”
Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in English-speaking households either assume that the rest of the world speaks English, is learning English, or should learn English.
A spot of national parochialism is perfectly normal and I have no doubt that each language group and nation is quietly convinced of its superiority over its neighbours, the Americans and anyone else.
The “challenge” for the speakers of English is the sense of ‘vox Romana”, the idea that the English language is the communication tool of choice around the globe. And when we observe Korean diplomats speaking to their Egyptian counterparts, or Swedes speaking to Chileans, there is a strong probability that they will choose English.
My question is this: does this make us more, or less fortunate?
The soft answer is that we are lucky – that the rest of the world is banging its collective head against a wall to try and attain something that we can do effortlessly from the age of 7.
I shall quibble with this – and not just because I like quibbling (and yes Mr Milligan, I have quibbled). One of the virtues of speaking a second language (English or anything else) is that we learn that there is more than one way to skin a cat (although to be honest, not many other languages choose to skin cats – metaphorically or otherwise).
In the past several weeks I have pointed out a number of different approaches taken by other languages, from Arabic with its “all consonant” alphabet, through the Korean approach to the word “this” (Korean uses a different word for “this” as an adjective – this blog post – or as a standalone – Do you want this?).
I would argue that the learning of a second language teaches a kind of linguistic humility, similar to that argued by Copernicus (who was Polish, so I am claiming him for this project too). Inasmuch as the sun does not revolve around the Earth, the Earth does not revolve around English.
There are a number of linguistically useful developments that have emerged in modern English. “Red” is just plain “red”, unlike German which can describe ein rotes Auto, ein roter Mann, eine rote Katze, or give something der roten Schule. Or those sly Germans might just say, “Es ist rot.” To confuse us further.
This is not to say that English is by any means perfect. Who came up with the use of “do” in questions? Do we need to say, “Do we need to say?” Most other languages will simplify this to “Need we say?” And good luck to them.
When I had just finished high school, I went to work in a factory for a time before going to the university course that was almost pre-ordained at my choice of high school. While at work one day, I met an apprentice who asked me if I had done my final year of school. I said yes, and he asked, “Did you pass?” My instinctive response (which I was fortunate or smart enough not to verbalise) was “Of course” because the yardstick at my school was not whether or not you graduated, but which University you entered.
I am extremely lucky to have met that apprentice when I was still 17, because his questions lifted me out of the middle-class cocoon of expectations and showed me that there were other ways of viewing education, accomplishment and goals.
Learning a second language is another way of lifting yourself out of your upbringing, your cultural template and your worldview. The slightly stiff Continentals and Japanese, with their grammatical variants around respect and familiarity, can remove their linguistic starched collars as they skinny-dip in the conversational looseness of English.
The Englishman who thinks that everything should be neat and orderly, can discover the linguistic and phonetic flow of the Semitic languages where a single word can transform into multiple iterations of itself – past, present, adjective, actor, action – with a few flips of vowels.
And the great joy at the end of the voyage is a greater appreciation of the flexibility and the variety of our own mother tongue, bastard child of Teutonic and Romance languages, pick-pocket of Latin and Greek, and parent of enough regional variation to inspire Mark Twain, Henry Lawson and old Rudyard himself.