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You speak English? Then rejoice

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 11:15 28/06/2014

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OPINION: There are many ways to feel inadequate at a Cambridge University college.

Cambridge has 29 colleges and every student must belong to one. The colleges provide a home, food and close study supervision while the university faculties look after the courses.

Wolfson College, where I am currently a Press fellow, hosts undergraduate students and also many Masters and PhD students. It's probably the most international of the Cambridge colleges and many members are multilingual.

At breakfast you might sit next to a Japanese professor translating biblical Hebrew into Japanese, a Norwegian student doing a PhD (in English) on Wittgenstein, or a Pakistani academic who speaks several local languages as well as French and English.

You might also encounter German, Italian and French students who speak almost flawless English, and some from Africa who speak at least two or three local languages, a European language like Portuguese and speak and write excellent English.

Other strange language experiences include sitting with a group of Singaporean Chinese students who all spoke perfect English with an upper-class British accent.

It's enough to give you a complex if you speak only one or two languages. I was talking about my feelings of language inadequacy with a multilingual music psychologist from Taiwan recently.

She told me not to worry.

"If English was my first language I wouldn't bother learning any others," she said.

Great, I thought, that's me off the hook. Later I found this is not a totally radical or unusual notion, despite the world's economic power shifting towards nations like China (about whom the psychologist was not very nice).

This theory holds that since speakers of other widely spoken languages like Chinese and Arabic are learning English anyway, we as English speakers don't need to go to the trouble of their language.

If you are brought up speaking English, you just happen to be lucky enough to be speaking, as your native tongue, the language of international commerce, journalism, computing, law, science, diplomacy and conferences.

If you travel anywhere in the world, except France, you will find people who can understand you and who are willing to communicate with you in your own tongue. This should be one of your great advantages as a student, a world citizen and a competitor in the employment market.

But it should not make us haughty or dismissive. We should be grateful and make sure we can speak, read and write English very well.

But what about Mandarin? Isn't this challenging for the place of the dominant world language.

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Again we, as monolinguals, should be thankful Mandarin becoming a world language won't happen. It's true that Mandarin or Cantonese is spoken by as many, if not more people than those who speak English, but that doesn't mean it will become an international language.

In the first place, English has a huge head start. In modern times, China has not been a major imperial or colonial power. Its culture is not a world culture nor does it have consumer brands recognised internationally.

American teenagers, for instance, are not watching Chinese movies or listening to Chinese pop groups.

Mandarin is difficult to learn, especially to write. Classical Mandarin has 10,000 characters and although this has been truncated to about 3000 characters for modern Mandarin, it is still fiendishly complex.

The characters are still pictures exemplifying an idea and the language is also tonal, in the sense the same word can have four meanings depending on the tone in which it is spoken.

That is not to say learning Mandarin is a waste of time. It would be very useful in many spheres but the time spent learning Mandarin could be spent learning something else, such as another language.

Good reasons still exist for learning languages. Apart from making travel and business easier and more enjoyable, knowing the language of another country or area is still the key to understanding the local culture.

Having just returned from Spain, I have been reminded yet again that knowing another language is a great way to show off. You can talk to the waiter, listen in on conversations, have a joke with the taxi driver and establish a subtext that says, "don't take me for a dumb tourist".

It's said making an effort to speak the local language makes you more popular with the, well, the locals.

I'm not so sure about that. Where is the joy in hearing your language being slaughtered by a foreigner who then expects some gratitude or acknowledgement he is making an effort?

But never fear. The internet has made foreign languages instantly accessible. I learned some common Spanish phrases for my Spanish trip but the one I needed most was not on the list. Thank Goodness for Google. I looked it up.

Puedo pagar con tarjeta de credito? Can I pay by credit card?

Van Beynen is currently at Wolfson College, Cambridge on a Press fellowship won in 2012.

- The Press

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