If you hadn’t guessed already, you’ll know that I live in Europe. Now there was a time when I could ask a Dutch person “how good is my Dutch?” In a manner like my asking people about their childhood memories (1). Now this wasn’t to ask how good they thought my Dutch was, but to find out if they were willing and able to make a decision for themselves, based on their own perceptions. Many Dutch people are unable to do this, because they’ve been trained in evidence-based decision making.
Only I have a problem: in the intervening years my Dutch has improved to the point where many now do not notice the BBC accent doing its best to keep its vocal head above the Dutch water. This has disarmed me because I now have to tell people that I am English, and so they are fore-warned that my spoken Dutch is pretty good.
Now it would be a few years ago when I was doing my teacher training that I spoke with the lady who taught us psychology. She spoke of her time living overseas, in a place that didn’t speak English, and she was very careful to live in an enclave of Ex-Pats so that she wouldn’t lose her Englishness.
Compare her experiences to the reality of my own Englishness: I am still quintessentially English for all my European wanderings. My Englishness is something that is all but indelible.
The point is that hers is too.
Only she didn’t know it, because she’d never tried to wash it off – as I have in ten years of learning Dutch. In trying to wash it off, that is to say, speak with a flawless Dutch accent, the reality of my Englishness has dawned on me the more powerfully still!
There are, however, too many people who assume that they will lose something because they imagine its impermanence. Imagination, when disconnected from reality is a very dangerous thing. What’s more, when teachers imagine things that aren’t real, the pupils won’t think to question whether the illusion is reality or not. Furthermore, they will not have the conceptual tools to be able to discover the truth.
The other aspect to language is dialect – dialect as opposed to an accent; a dialect is where the very grammar is at variance with the ‘standard’ pronunciation. Oh, BBC English is the, umm… standard pronunciation, isn’t it?
That’s me scuppered, isn’t it?
Only it was in the France of the early 1900s that strides were made to standardize French grammar and pronunciation. After all, in France there were many dialects, and often people fifty kilometres away from each other found their French to be mutually unintelligible. To the leaders in the Académie Française, this was unacceptable: their view of the French was that if they were to defend their country, they had to speak as one.
That is to say, they were making the same mistakes as my psychology tutor, and for the same reason: a fear of the unknown. It is fear that is the key to understanding most of the problems our modern world faces today. In the century that has elapsed since the First World War, these fears have become so ingrained that they are imagined to be part of a person’s culture.
It is for this reason that it takes a great deal of courage to find out the truth of the matter. After all, if one’s idea of Englishness is dependent on one’s being in the close company of the English, it’s not the sort of attitude that spurs one to learn the local language. This notion of ‘Englishness’ sees other cultures as a kind of bacterial disease that might invade and destroy that person’s own Englishness!
As mentioned, this is far harder to achieve, if not downright impossible. Because there is one thing that one has to undergo if one is to learn a foreign language, and that is to learn one’s own first. I went through this whilst learning German properly in my early twenties, and I can tell you, it hurt like hell. Realizing that my spoken language was very different to the grammar I thought I was using came as quite a shock. It’s the kind of shock the Ex-Pat in their little English enclave will never know about; but then, if they regard another language as a threat, they’re never going to get to the point where their own language gets caught in the searchlights. Their searchlights are all pointing the other way, looking outwards.
Thus there are two hurdles if a person wishes to learn another language as an adult. Neither of them are particularly harmful, after all, I’m still alive for all the pain of discovering the depth of my own cultural roots – that is to say, to realize that the way I spoke my own mother tongue differed from the way I thought I spoke it. More to the point, it brought me a great deal of confidence, if for the only reason that I knew my own cultural makeup was a lot stronger than I ever imagined it to be.
But then, I never imagined it to be weak, which helped of course. Those who start by imagining something to be weak is going to defend it, rather than use Napoleon’s famous saying: “attack is the strongest form of defence”. The weak will make themselves weaker by trying to defend weakness from the very things that will make them strong!
So it was with the French, they sought to bring their country together by imposing something from the centre. France, like Britain, focusses on their respective capital city, Paris and London. Only imagine a farmer from the outskirts of Oxford, who speaks in the broad-vowelled dialect of the region; and then imagine him meeting a man from Birmingham. Neither of them can understand each other easily, if at all; but that doesn’t make either of them any less English, does it? Their sense of Englishness is not diluted by a Birminghamness or an Oxfordshireness, is it? Each of them expresses something English in their own way.
To the academic sitting in his cloistered Oxford college, this is irrelevant, because he knows his Englishness is to be defended at all costs. After all, that’s what standardization is, isn’t it? A flattening out of cultural differences. The kind of thing the people set up the European Union to do, but hasn’t a hope. They didn’t know how deep their own cultural roots were any more than the Oxford professor does.
In conclusion, I’d like to take a peek at Germany. Most people know that the capital is now Berlin, which used to sit smack in the middle of the country; for West Germany, the capital was Bonn. What is important to note is that the capital wasn’t Frankfurt or Cologne – two of Germany’s economic centres. Frankfurt is the financial centre of Germany, and it’s not as if it’s even the capital of the state of Hessen where Frankfurt lies. That’s Wiesbaden!
In one paragraph, I have described a de-centralized country. Britain’s primary airports are in London; France’s primary airport is in Paris. Germany’s primary airport was Frankfurt, but today, Munich, Tegel (Berlin) and Stuttgart are equally well connected by air, rail and road.
If you want to do anything important in Britain or France, you have to go to the capital. In Germany, there’s something to hand, be it gallery, opera house or international airport. The Germans have their own distinct culture, and it is one that is now suffering the consequences of fearful thinking – but it doesn’t suffer from centralization because the roads and railway lines were already laid, the regional cities were already strong in an independent manner. Which is one possible reason for Germany’s economic success in recent years: the individual thinks of themselves as German, not as London or Paris.
A Look At Sentience
A while ago I asked a group of people about their memories from before the age of four or so. I got a series of answers that ranged from very few to rather a lot. Only, well, you know me… the question wasn’t about the memories we had as infants.