Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The joy and curse of our lovely English language

This time last week I was sailing down the fjords discovering what a wonderful country Norway is. I will be writing at some length (and with many a gushing adjective) about my Norwegian adventure in out travel section in the next couple of weeks but before I start pining for the fjords too much I want to discuss the only thing about my trip that actually depressed me.

And that is about languages. And specifically the fact that ‘they’ - i.e. the world - speak ours and we simply don’t bother with theirs.

I have long been a tad embarrassed to go abroad and find everyone talking to me in my mother tongue - and watching Match Of The day is positively excruciating at times as the foreign players speak better English than the, ahem, English ones - but Norway took this onto a new level.

Of course we do have some links with Norway - we were pillaged by their Vikings for starters - but it is not exactly as if we are bosom buddies. We often refer to the special relationship between Britain and the United States but you hardly ever see a misty-eyed Brit talk about the unshakeable link between the peoples of Oslo and Oswestry. And yet, travel across the North Sea and you will find a country where it seems everyone speaks our language. Brilliantly.

I read somewhere that the best gift the British gave to the world was our language. It has become the world’s number one tongue for culture and business but the downside about this is that it stops us bothering to learn other languages. After all if you live in a pub, you are unlikely to bother finding out where the off-licence is.

Travelling around Norway I met people of all ages and of all backgrounds and they all spoke English really well - usually after apologising for their ‘poor English’. (Poor English? You should hear my Norwegian I kept thinking…..)

When questioned - and trust me I started questioning everyone on this - people saw it entirely natural that they spoke English having learned it at school from an early age and also (crucially) from TV, cinema and pop music.

We met one charming 19-year-old girl who sang and danced for us who even managed to speak English with an English accent. How did she do that I asked? “Well,” she said. “My favourite programmes are MidSomer Murders and Heartbeat which are popular here. I just copy that.” (I was very impressed but I had to gently tell her that life in Britain isn’t quite like Heartbeat anymore. Not quite.)

And it is not just as if our Norse friends just talked English to the English. I heard Norwegians talking English to Germans, Norwegians talking English to Koreans etc etc. It seemed as if one the common denominator for everyone was that English was the glue that binded nations.

A source of pride? Sure, but let’s face it, being British has made many of us lazy about learning other tongues. I didn’t take my French, German or even Latin school lessons terribly seriously if I am honest and I don’t think it has held me back. After all I have visited France and Germany and got by without so much as a oui or a jah because frankly I didn’t need to. And yes, that does make me feel slightly embarrassed.

So among the many things I will now add to my bucket list of ‘things to do before I die’ is to learn a language. I can’t face revisiting my failed French, German or Latin (and Norwegian seemed a bit too much to be honest) but I will find a language to learn and start to redress the international inbalance.

I just wonder if there is a Spanish or Italian equivalent of Heartbeat . . .

Takk skal du ha alle for lesing.


Foreign Languages Centre said...

Dear Sam, if you're finished with French and German how about trying
Japanese, or Arabic? The University is running a free taster session on
Saturday 12 September from 11 to 3at the Brunswick Room in the Guildhall. Just turn up
to have a 20 minute go at a new language. Apart from your list of 'things to
do before I die', language researchers have found 700 reasons for studying a
language. It won't come as any to surprise to anyone who is learning one
themselves that personal benefit and enjoyment are the strongest reasons!
For more info about studying a language with us you can visit
www.bath.ac.uk/flc/community We offer 10 languages, but no Norwegian as

Sam Holliday said...

Thanks for the advice. I may well pop along!!!

Foreign Languages Centre said...

Lovely! I should be there as well, so hopefully I'll see you then!

duncan_m said...


¨And that is about languages. And specifically the fact that ‘they’ - i.e. the world - speak ours and we simply don’t bother with theirs.¨

So true.. I´m learning Spanish at the moment and the more I learn and start to appreciate their music, culture and of course their language the more embarassed I get at my own 40 years of insularity..

Great post!