It has become commonplace to hear that English is now a sort of “global” language, or lingua franca. Although this might be partly true, is it right to draw the conclusion that native speakers of English have no practical reason to learn other languages?
As an academic who has chosen to specialise in German and the culture of the German-speaking countries, I find it hard not to get depressed at this line of reasoning. The assumption that many Germans speak English so why bother with their language sits alongside the stubborn persistence of cultural stereotypes and prejudices dating back to the two World Wars, if not further.
Against this background, the case is now being made for the continued importance of having language skills beyond English, particularly for employment prospects.
I would argue that there is another good reason for learning a foreign language: it deepens one’s understanding of language in general and will improve your skills in your native language. Let’s consider the example of the “modern foreign language” that I know best – German.
It’s often overlooked that German is in one sense not a “foreign” language for English speakers at all, but a kindred one. The standard forms of modern English and German have shared roots in the family of western Germanic languages, along with Dutch.
This is fairly easy to spot in a lot of the core vocabulary: Mann (man), Mutter (mother), schwimmen (swim) and so on. These similarities can give you a head start as a learner – although inevitably there are a few “false friends” to watch for too: Gift for example is the German word for “poison”.
We even have equivalents to the famous German umlaut, the vowel shift common in plurals and irregular verbs. So in English the singlular “man” becomes plural “men”, just as in German Mann becomes Männer. These are the words our Anglo-Saxon ancestors brought to Britain with their language, before the Normans further enriched the language with many words with their roots in Latin.
At a deeper grammatical level, English has visible Germanic roots. And the very things that beginners in German can find worrying often have analogies in English. By grasping them in a closely related language like German, a native speaker of English will often begin to appreciate the features of his or her own language.
Native speakers of English are notoriously prone to make certain grammatical mistakes in their own language. It nearly always reflects a lack of understanding of how languages work.
For example, the statement “If I was a rich man” might well be comprehensible. But it should of course – as in the famous musical song – be: “If I were a rich man”. This is an example of the subjunctive mood, in which a verb changes to reflect a theoretical or “unreal” situation.
It can be contrasted with the indicative, used to describe an actual situation: “I am not a rich man”. The confusion arises partly because “were” can indicate both tense and, in this case, mood. And in the indicative past tense, “I was” is naturally correct. To add to the confusion, the difference between the imperfect past tense and the subjunctive is invisible with other verbs. So: “He spoke German” and: “If he spoke German” are both correct.
No confusion in German
In German, the subjunctive mood is much more visible and never confused with the indicative. “Wenn ich reich wäre” (If I were rich), uses wäre, the subjunctive form of sein (to be). It is what almost all German speakers would say, even informally.
This means that, as the learner of German becomes more familiar with the natural way to express such conditional situations in German, he or she will become sensitive to the equivalents in English. With English using words such as “were” in so many grammatical contexts, it’s no wonder that many native speakers of English aren’t sure what is actually correct.
Me or I
Here’s another example. One often hears sentences such as “He gave a present to my husband and I”. This reflects a fundamental confusion about subject and object words in English. German has retained a case system that makes it very clear whether a noun or pronoun is the active subject or passive object of a sentence. It’s a key difference and the system is still embedded in the language.
In English we tend to rely on word order to make the difference clear, as well as prepositions. But we do make the distinction in pronouns: “I”, “he”, “she” and “they” are always active subjects, whereas “me”, “him”, “her” and “them” are objects, being acted upon. So we say: “He gave a present to me.” Including the additional information about “my husband” changes nothing, grammatically speaking it should be: “He gave a present to me and my husband”.
In German, because prepositions are strongly linked with a particular object case it would be inconceivable to use the active “nominative” case after a preposition or a transitive verb like “give”. Likewise any confusion between “who” and “whom”, the latter being an object form (“to whom am I speaking?”), wears off once one is used to German’s cases. Again, it’s highly unlikely a German would confuse wer (who) with wen or wem (whom).
These are just a few small examples. The plea I’d like to make, ahead of the European Day of Languages, is that rather than thinking of a language like German simply as “foreign”, speakers of English might start to view it as the neighbour and relative that it is.
And far from it being pointless to learn other languages, if you take the leap and start to learn another language you’ll discover it’s not as hard as you might think. In the process to improve your command of language in general, you could become a more sensitive and precise user of your own language.