Polyglot proficiency

I belong to a sort of informal walking club which involves a bunch of middle-aged farts shambling around the Essex countryside for a couple of hours on a Sunday before stopping at a pub for lunch. It’s not exactly exercise, but it’s a great way to find new pubs. The members tend to be reasonably cosmopolitan but I hadn’t realised just how much until today when I counted the number of languages spoken on the one walk among thirteen people. I came up with Swedish, Hungarian, German, Italian and French; there is also a Turkish speaker, though I have never heard her do it. These are only the languages spoken fluently by at least one person — the test of fluency being either that the speaker was brought up in it or that they have worked as a translator to or from in adult life. There is a penumbra of holiday languages — Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, at least — that are spoken with varying degrees of fluency; and two people speak Hausa from having lived in Northern Nigeria for a while.

What provoked this was a grumble about Cambridge University dropping the foreign language requirement for entry, the last British university to do so. Not only is this a bad thing in and of itself but the collapse in British linguistic competence comes from what was once a reasonably high standard.

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2 Responses to Polyglot proficiency

  1. Robert Nowell says:

    At Vatican II the lingua franca was French because the French at that time couldn’t speak anything else and the rest of us could just about cope. (I always remember the distinguished correspondent of Le Monde, Henri Fesquet [Alain Woodrow’s predecessor], getting frightully upset because a press conference was threatening to lapse into English.) Information was handed out to the press at briefings in the main languages after the morning’s session was over, and it was surprising how useful it was to be able to go round and collect the bulletins in French, German and Italian to get a fuller and more rounded picture.

    And for any worthwhile academic study you need to be able to cope with material in other major languages. In my time those reading chemistry at Oxford had to do German as part of their course, and in classics there was an enormous amount of useful material in French and German.

  2. quinn says:

    i have given up on learning another language, at least for the foreseeable future. partly this is because i don’t seem to be good at remembering things in other languages. but mostly this is because everywhere i have gone in the world any attempt to speak another language has inevitably met with someone speaking english back. someone who wanted to speak english with me. enthusiastically. there’s one exception- south korea. my only shot is moving to south korea for a while.

    so i guess, in short, i blame the damn feriners.

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