THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT'S ROLE IN PROMOTING THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
SPEECH TO THE WORLD MEMBERS' CONFERENCE OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING UNION
Sydney, 31 August 1999
I’m delighted to be here today – my first official function after a long camping trip around the north of Australia. Earlier in the year I had attended the lunch here in Sydney to launch the plans for this conference, where the guest of honour was HRH Prince Michael of Kent. I thought he looked most distinguished in his beard, so I decided to grow one during our trip. Unfortunately, it didn’t look nearly as distinguished as his – more like a bushranger in fact, so I shaved it off yesterday.
Actually, speaking of bushrangers reminds me of some of the language difficulties we faced on our trip. We were travelling with two friends from Britain and for part of the time with another two American friends. Words like bushranger left them bemused. And they couldn’t get over coming across a tree called a Snotty Gobbler and a fish called a Sooty Grunter.
I of course have had the benefit of being taught the Australian language by my wife Katie – and I have in turn struggled to teach her English. On my first visit to Australia, she took me to met her parents on their property in rural New South Wales. Her father did the traditional thing, and took his prospective son-in-law off to meet his mates in the pub. I wasn’t allowed home until I had to be carried out to the ute, but I knew I’d made the right impression when her father said to her mother as I was helped to bed "this Pom seems a fair dinkum bloke."
I remember too an earlier experience with communicating in English when I was travelling around the southern United States when I was 19. In Memphis, I met this striking girl at a party, and I was chatting about life in England. She seemed to be hanging on every word and I thought I was on to a good thing – until she said "gee, I don’t understand a word you say but I just love your accent."
And when I first joined the public service in England I realised it too spoke a wholly different language. I got a minute from my boss criticising something I’d written and saying:
"You must understand that there is a difference between the start-up situation and the on-going situation when this is put in the context of neutral revenue streams."
He classified his minute Budget Secret – but he needn’t have worried, since I didn’t understand a word.
These stories illustrate the diversity of the English language. But they shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the way English allows people from different nations and cultures to communicate.
The idea of English spreading around the world goes back a long way. It was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, exactly 400 years ago, that the now rather obscure poet Samuel Daniel wrote:And who knows whither we may vent
Four hundred years later, the "treasure of our tongue" has certainly spread right around the world—though I’m a bit more dubious whether Samuel Daniel would recognise "accents that are ours."
Of course, there is a darker side too, as Shakespeare expressed at much the same time through Caliban , in "The Tempest":"You taught me language; and my profit on't
And there can be concern too if English is seen as displacing other tongues. One of the pleasures of my job is meeting many eminent Australians, including one of Australia’s finest poets and novelists, David Malouf, who is addressing this conference tomorrow. I was very struck by one of his short stories where he points up the consequence of the demise of a language:
In his story "The Only Speaker of His Tongue", he describes an elderly Aboriginal man, the sole surviving speaker of his native language:
"It is still alive in the man's silence, a whole alternative universe, since the world as we know it is in the last resort the words through which we imagine and name it . . . When I think of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men a chill goes over me that is deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered death of all my land."
A very powerful image, especially to those of who heard Evelyn Scott’s passionate speech at the dinner last night.
Closer to home, we only have to think about the Cornish tongue, with it’s last speaker being – supposedly – an old "fish jowster" called Dolly Penthridge, who lived in Mousehole in Cornwall over 200 years ago - a thought which apparently also inspired David Malouf when writing his story.
For the language we speak does play a role in shaping the way we see, understand and interpret our world. So while the British Government welcomes and indeed promotes the spread of English, it does not seek to do so at the expense of eliminating others. We have come a long way from the days when people in Britain were punished for speaking Welsh or Gaelic.
Matthew Arnold, when he was His Majesty’s Inspector of Schools in 1882, wrote:
"Whatever encouragement individuals may think it is desirable to give to the preservation of the Welsh language on grounds of philological or antiquarian interest, it must be the desire of a government to render its dominions, as far as possible, homogeneous, and to break down barriers to the freest intercourse between the different parts of them. Sooner or later, the difference of language between Wales and England will probably be effaced, as has happened with the difference of language between Cornwall and the rest of England."
Things are very different today, however. The UK Government now has a firm commitment to the use and further development of the Welsh language, and so too of course does the new Welsh Assembly elected earlier this year.
And here in Australia, the British Council and the British Consulate last year supported a major programme called newWALES in New South Wales, which brought many artists, scientists and academics to Australia. One part of that is a project to link Aboriginal teachers and pupils with schools in Wales, which has helped them to share knowledge and best practice about language-learning and teaching-techniques for language survival.
But back to English, a language which, as others have pointed out, is now spoken by one in five of the billions of people around the world.
The British Government, through its grant-in-aid to the British Council, has made a considerable investment in the promotion of English since the Council was first founded in 1934. Many of you will be familiar with the Council from its activities here in Australia, though it hasn’t – yet! – felt the need to get involved in teaching Australians to speak English. I am delighted it is one of the sponsors of this conference.
The Council's Vice-Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales wrote as a foreword to the recent British Council publication, "The Future of English?",
"The British Council’s task is to promote Britain and the English language throughout the world."
That is indeed a core function for the Council. It’s Royal Charter states that it was created "for the purpose of promoting a wider knowledge of Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the English language abroad and developing closer cultural relations."
It operates at arms length from the Government, with an independent governing body, but it works closely with the Government, and its overall objectives are similar, for example in seeking to increase the impact of the UK overseas and the respect for British values. It is a vital tool of what we call Public Diplomacy. The Foreign Office has given it considerable support, for example, giving additional funding soon after the Berlin Wall came down, to answer the urgent need for expanded and improved English teaching in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, many of which wanted to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English.
I know that there are some who are concerned that this is another facet of linguistic imperialism, to use the title of Robert Phillipson’s book. I don’t believe that thesis, and I have been glad to hear others at this conference reject it too. I though the Commonwealth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaouku, put it very well in his speech last night when he talked of the way a common language can promote global literacy and cultural understanding rather than cultural subjugation.
And whilst the spread of English was a natural part of colonial expansion, it was not until this century, and the rise of Fascism and National Socialism that much serious thought was given to the need for the Government to engage in cultural-relations work linked to English-language teaching and the promotion of the "British way of life".
Indeed, it was an Australian, Rex Leeper, who joined the British Foreign Office and became Head of its Information Department, who was one of the chief architects of The British Council. He published an article in "Contemporary Review" in August 1935, entitled "British Culture Abroad". He was very conscious of the model of the Alliance Francaise. But it is remarkable how much difficulty he had in getting such ideas widely accepted. In her history of The British Council, Frances Donaldson points out that "The British would not, and in the end did not, embark on any programme of this sort until they were convinced that it was materially damaging to their interests not to do so. Their scepticism about the value of spreading such intangibles as language, literature, the arts and civilised values was almost as complete as the French belief in it".
But by 1956, a Report by the Ministry of Education’s Official Committee on the Teaching of English Overseas, could state:
"Within a generation from now English could be a world language - that is to say, a universal second language in those countries in which it is not already the native or primary tongue."
We are now well on the way to that.
Indeed, it is clear from the success of the English Speaking Union in so many countries that the issue is one of meeting the demand of people around the world to learn English, rather than foisting English on unwilling populations. And Melbourne scholar Alan Davies has pointed out that most countries that chose to use or adopt English did so for their own sound economic, historical, cultural and political reasons - for common-sense reasons, not as a result of coercion. The British Council and the English Speaking Union are working with the grain not against it.
Of course there are also strong commercial benefits to the UK, as well as to other English-speaking countries, from English language teaching training, and the British Government fully recognises and supports that.
English-language teaching contributes something close to £1 billion a year to the British Balance of Payments, and at least half of all students who travel to learn English come to the UK. But it is a global market, and we face strong competition from Australia, the US, Canada and other English-speaking countries.
Strong competition, but also a sense of shared values and shared objectives. Much of our work is done in close co-operation with other countries, especially with those countries which provide most of the members of the English Speaking Union. We share common goals in raising the standards of English teaching and learning around the world.
And the British Government supports both public and private sector English Language Training and the growth of effective networks of professional teachers. New networks such as the English Language Teaching Contacts Scheme have recently been established in Asia. And the network created in Central and Eastern Europe has been immensely successful.
And of course we are keen to promote the wider benefits of students doing part of their education in Britain, not just coming to the UK for English Language Training. This is something Tony Blair has taken a personal interest in. International education is a fast-growing market right around the world, and it is one where Australia has had considerable success in attracting students from the Asian region.
Once again, it is an area where I believe there is plenty of room for competition and Cupertino: indeed a two-way flow lays the foundations for a much better understanding of each other’s countries. I’d like to see many more Australians going to British universities for part of their studies and the same time see more British students coming to Australia.
Earlier this year, I helped the British Council to launch a new programme to encourage Australian students to study in Britain, something that is being followed up in other countries too.
The fact that the British Council here were quick off the mark owes a lot of course to the enthusiastic and energetic direction of Jim Potts. He has done a great job during his six and a half years here, and he and Maria will be much missed when they leaves for a new posting next year.
Jim was one of the key figures behind the highly successful campaign in Australia in 1997, called "newIMAGES".
That was an opportunity to challenge outmoded stereotypes about the UK and to begin to change perceptions. That is particularly important among younger people, where image and branding can make a big difference to the attraction of visiting or studying in another country.
That brings me to one of the facets of the English Speaking Union that particularly impresses me: the success it has had in recruiting younger members in so many countries and developing programmes of interest to them.
But I am a fan to of the wider work of the ESU. Alliances and shared values matter as much today as they have ever done.
Of course a part of Britain’s future is tied up in Europe, with its Babel-like profusion of official languages. And of course a part of Australia’s future lies in Asia. And a country like the USA as the only superpower has alliances and interests in every region of the world. And all the other countries represented here belong to a variety of groupings and alliances.
But the English language is an important tie binding people together regardless of global political alliances. It is something that is very evident within the Commonwealth.
I was lucky enough to attend several Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings during my time in Downing Street. One of the striking features of those meetings is that since English is a common language, there is the opportunity for real debate and discussion around the table. So many other international meetings, which require simultaneous translation, degenerate into a series of set-piece speeches with no real contact or exchanges. It is one of the strengths of the Commonwealth that its leaders really can communicate face-to-face.
I remember the first time I went to a European Union meeting in Brussels, and was given a booklet on how to cope with simultaneous translation. The instructions said speak slowly and repeat yourself so as to give the interpreters time to catch up – good advice maybe for helping those who don’t speak English, but it can make for very boring meetings. But I particularly remember the instruction not to make jokes. "If you do", the manual said, "the interpreters will be forced to say ‘Mr Allan has just made a joke. It is not possible to translate it but it would be polite if you laughed now.’"
In practice, and particularly in Europe, simultaneous translation is used even when it is not really necessary. I did a lot of the negotiations in Paris over the setting up of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. At the meetings, we had simultaneous translation to and from English, French, German and Russian. The meetings ran on into the evening, and eventually the French chairman announced "the translators have to go home now. For the rest of the meeting we will all conduct our business in English." And lo and behold, everyone spoke good English and the meeting continued just as efficiently as before.
As well as enabling countries whose first language is English to communicate freely, the spread of English as a world language provides an opportunity to build stronger bridges to countries which have adopted English as a common medium of communication or as a second language.
But the most striking recent development is the way English has emerged as the dominant language of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The vast bulk of the traffic is English-language based. I found it striking, for example, that countries such as France, Germany and Japan all find it necessary to have English-language versions of their Government web sites.
But the very power and speed of development of the internet and of computer technologies is raising some big issues in relation to language.
We are getting ever closer to the days when good, instantaneous machine translation will be available to everyone.
Indeed many people are unaware what is already available. As an example, I decided to look at a Portuguese newspaper on the internet this morning to see what it was saying about yesterday’s referendum in East Timor. I don’t speak Portuguese, and the newspaper didn’t provide an English language version. But I used one of the free translation engines on the World Wide Web and after a few seconds it produced the following text:
"The participation in the popular consultation of self-determination of Timor-East, that today elapsed, was ciphered in about 90 percent of the voters, announced the electoral head of the technician of the UNAMET, Jeff Fisher. To the principle of the afternoon, already they had voted 80 more than percent of the voters."
Not perfect by any means. But perfectly intelligible. And that is a service that is already available, for free. I have no doubt we will see the quality of translation becoming better and better in the future. And this will become increasingly significant as more and more information is published and made available on-line.
This will raise some key issues in the new Millennium. The British Council decided to commission research on this, which it has published as a book called "The Language Machine" by Eric Atwell that explores some of the technological, social and educational implications of instant and automatic translation.
Not just through reading web pages in another langauge. But – in the longer term – having an attachment ot your telephone that enables you to conduct a normal conversation with someone speaking another language. Or to watch television, listen to the radio or read books in another language with instantaneous translation. We are getting closer towards the situation imagined by Douglas Adams in "The Hitch-hikers Guide To The Galaxy" when you can put a babel-fish in your ear and communicate with anyone in the universe.
Does this mean that individual languages will become irrelevant? That the spread of English will go into reverse as people find they don’t need to learn English in order to read technical journals; that they don’t need English in order to listen to the BBC World Service; even that they don’t need English in order to conduct a conversation with someone speaking English?
To answer this, I go back to the instructions about not making jokes at European Union meetings, to David Malouf’s story about how language shapes the way we see, understand and interpret the world.
We still today read and listen to Shakespeare and admire the way he provides insights into human nature that stand the test of time. Attempts to produce updated versions in today's language that might seem more relevant, in fact lack the power and subtlety of the original.
And so I beileve that although the world we live in will continue to change with bewildering speed, the English language will remain a powerful tool for sharing ideas, experience and culture and that the work of bodies such as the British Council and the English Speaking Union will remain as important as ever.
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