“So, do you speak French?” they’ll ask.
“Yes” I’ll say.
Then their eyes grow wide and a smile spreads across their face, “oh cool! How do you say X in French? How do you say Y? What’s a really bad word?”
Once I’ve rattled off a few sentences, they’ll look at me with glee and awe as if I’ve unscrambled a rubix cube in front of them.
One of the linguist’s at Crikey summed up the perception of foreign languages in Australia as “a party trick.” This man is dead on. It’s not a skill which you are expected to learn as say driving a car. Instead it’s something to be impressed by, and a little perplexed as to how could you manage to learn a language to the point of actually conversing with a native speaker? So it becomes a ‘party trick.’
Yet when a German or Swede speaks to us in near perfect English, we understand that English is their second language, yet we’re not amazed by how they have managed to effectively communicate and understand English like us. Or at least not as impressed as if you’re Australian/British/American etc classmate was able to speak a language fluently just from learning it at school.
Do they have a secret? Are Germans someone just smarter than the rest of us? Is the language learning area of their brain somehow larger at birth? I’m pretty sure if we examined a British persons brain next to a German one, they’d probably look the same – so why are Germans so ‘good’ at foreign languages and the British can only recognised on average a handful of basic words in their first foreign language by the time they reach their teens, according to this recent, rather depressing article (by the way, I think the average Australian student has about the same level of foreign language ability as a Brit, so I’m not trying to imply I think we’re better or anything this article just happens to be more recent)
I’ve already lived in Scandinavia (Finland) for 6 months and have met a lot of Europeans who speak almost perfect English (they tend to be Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Danish, Dutch etc) and I’ve tried to add up all the variables as to why they became so good at it.
They already had good foreign language training, it was valued at schools, they already had a lot of exposure to it (by only having English movies and tv shows screened in their original language with the sub-titles) and knew their own language would be difficult to use outside of their own country are just some of the reasons.
Yet I’m going to go out on a limb and make an assumption, that all the little Finns and Swedes knew a lot of people in their life who spoke English really well. They had probably seen their parents speak in English to the lost tourist without a work of their native language being spoken, or watched them happily translate and get themselves around France, Spain or England without asking anyone ‘Do you speak Swedish?’ (because really, what are the chances of that happening?)
As a result, knowing a foreign language and being able to communicate in it effectively loses its ‘party trick’ status. It’s good to know, but it’s not necessarily that impressive… like learning how to drive a manual car, it takes a while to learn but no one’s going to stare at you in awe for knowing how to not stall it and change gears.
So maybe for English speakers out there, we need to be surrounded by more people who have learned a foreign language, who do not fall into the category of a) coming from an immigrant family b) are indigenous bilingual natives and c) German, but who just simply learned the language at school and ended up being able to have a decent conversation by the end of it.
Maybe if this happened more, we would start to be begin to realise that it’s not as hard as we think it is and there’s no reason why we can’t learn a foreign language as well as those Germans!
But on the downside, I’ll lose my party trick! 😉