AS WE have all known since we won the right to host the 2012 Olympics, 300 languages are spoken in London. It's just a pity the natives can only manage one.
The British are Europe's language dunces - less willing and able to express themselves in a foreign language than Hungarians, Poles, Turks and Bulgarians, let alone Dutch and Swedes. Luxembourgers are eight times as likely to speak another language as the natives of the world's most cosmopolitan city. Merde , even the French are twice as good at it as we are.
Does this matter? After all, the reason everyone else is better is the same reason we're so bad: everyone has to speak English. Combined with a booming economy, English, as Simon Kuper perceptively noted in the Financial Times last Saturday, rather than the English, is why London has become such a vibrant city. English is the language of the internet, of science, of business. Indirectly, it was English wot won London the Olympics. Yet the victory of English is both exaggerated and a two-edged sword. Paradoxically, only 6 per cent of the world's population are native English speakers, and 75 per cent speak no English at all. Meanwhile, for monolinguists, English is a one-way membrane that all too often filters out the rest of the world. London's rich linguistic medley passes through, and is connected by, English but since the English don't speak different languages, cosmopolitanism is in London but not really of it. That impervious membrane means native speakers are unconscious of many of the linguistic enclaves, or ghettoes, that exist on the other side. You can't understand the culture without knowing the language. Now, above all, what once sounded like a joyous babel can take on a more sinister ring.
The filter's debilitating effects are everywhere. It means we're most susceptible to American economic and management ideas than European ones. For individuals, where everyone else is multilingual, monolinguists, even where the language is English, are a card short of a full hand. Thus, foreign footballers have profited hugely from the English game (and graced it at least equally with their intelligence and articulateness), but not vice versa. How many British footballers are fluent in French or Spanish?
While European students queue to do exchanges with UK universities, there are few takers the other way round. They are getting fewer still. Language studies are falling off a cliff. CILT, the National Centre for Languages, says that in 2001-2, just 11,000 undergraduates started courses in French, 4,500 in German and 455 in Chinese. Seventy per cent of language students are women. Few men have any foreign language skills when they start work. In some multinationals, UK managers are effectively barred from advancement because of their lack of language skills.
The hidden consequences affect the whole economy. As CILT director Isabella Moore says, the adage 'you can buy in your own language, but you must sell in the language of your customer', is graphically illustrated in the UK's export figures. In Anglophone countries such as the US, Australia, Ireland and India, the UK sells more than it buys. For non-Anglophone trading partners (among them Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain), which together account for 72 per cent of UK exports, the reverse is the case. But what would you expect when 80 per cent of export managers cannot trade in another language and the proportion of executives able to negotiate outside their mother tongue is half the European average? UK firms manage simultaneously to be least likely to use the customer's language, most complacent about the need to do so and least aware of language issues overall.
The result, charges CILT, is that the pattern of UK international trade reflects one-eyed linguistic competence rather than market opportunity. 'The approach of UK businesses is distorted by the need to avoid markets where English speakers are not likely to be found, ' it says. So, for instance, UK trade with Denmark (population 5 million, 79 per cent of whom speak English) equals that for the whole of central and Latin America (population nearly 400 million).
Lack of linguistic intelligence, as it might be called, affects even communication in English, supposedly our trump card. Economically, the use of English by other nations translates into increased competition. In that kind of competition, idiomatic, colourful English that makes no concession to foreigners is no advantage - in fact, the reverse. CILT quotes the case of Korean Airlines, which reportedly chose a French supplier for its flight simulators because its 'offshore' international English was more comprehensible and clearer than that of the UK competitor.
Apart from blimpish ignorance, government policies and targets must take a share of the blame. Ludicrously, languages are no longer compulsory for post-14 year olds, and schools take every opportunity quietly to drop them. Languages are seen as difficult, so to keep their exam figures up schools would rather students took almost anything else. For all the rhetoric, there will be no improvement while these perverse incentives exert their hidden tyranny.
The polymath and critic George Steiner once observed that while you could see with one eye, two eyes gave you perspective. It's the same with language. What the monolingual blithely ignore is that a second language is essential to pick up the particularities in their own cultures as well as that of others. Where the one-eyed are king, it's not surprising how often we fail to see what's under our own noses.
The Observer, 24 July 2005