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The mother tongue

By Rebecca Simpson - posted Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Advanced development in science and technology centuries ago, particularly in weaponry and shipping, once ensured that the British roamed the world and colonised one country after another. Colonisation has made the British the largest empire in history. Although there are few British colonies that remain under the control of the United Kingdom, its language echoes around world. This is a long lasting legacy of British colonisation and the most profound impact on the colonies as well as the world. Britain left its language behind wherever it went. But English has not only retained these possessions, it has also spread further.

English has become a global language. Over the past centuries, British colonisation has ensured that about 2 billion peoplearound the world, possibly more, speak English. Now, English is everywhere. English is one of the working languages of the UN Secretariat. English is the official language of many transnational institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East African Community. Today, in Europe, 13 countriesensure that English is the first foreign language children are exposed to in primary school. More than 90% of students in those countries continue their English studies till high school. In Asia, the Japanese government has made English a compulsory primary school subject. India and other British colonies institute English as one of the country's official languages.

Because it is a global language those whose mother tongue is English, often choose not to pursue another language. A recent studyfound that English students spoke foreign languages worse than students from other European countries. Similarly in Australia, despite our country's multiculturalism, there has been a lag in teaching students a second language. In response, a new national curriculum will be implemented across the country next year so learning a foreign language will become a mandatory subject for primary school students. Teachers are expected to spend 5% of teaching timeon languages in primary school, this figure increasing to 8% in high school. Opposition leader Tony Abbott recently proposeda policy that 40% of Year 12 students learn a second language with kids exposed to language as early as preschool.


I studied a foreign language for the first time in high school. In year seven, I spent eight weeks on five different languages – French, German, Latin, Japanese and Mandarin. The purpose was to give students a taste of each language and then choose one of the languages to study further in year eight. However, in the later years of high school, language studies were not compulsory. Although some students did pursue a language, many including myself did not. Sometimes I look back and wish I had studied a language but at the time I felt there was no need to be multilingual because I only needed English for communication. The advantage of a global language is the ease of communicating with people from different parts of the world. Whether working in diplomacy or making friends on exchange, being able to share a common language prevents meaning being lost in translation.

English as a global language has also resulted in the disappearance of several minor languages. In 2009, over 400 languages were classified as endangered and it has been predicted that by 2100, 90% of the world's languages will vanish. Many people are satisfied with only speaking English because it is the only language they need. Particularly as the majority of TV and radio programs and print articles are in English, people feel no incentive to understand another language. If planning to travel to the major countries England and the United States of America, understanding English is adequate for your trip. Besides, many countries in Africa or Asia were colonies of Britain such as Nigeria and Ghana in west Africa and India and Singapore in Asia. Even China, although not conquered by Britain, was exposed to British culture and language during the opium wars. A 24-hour English news channel was launched two years ago in China so the government could communicate and influence overseas audiences. As many people across the globe are able to communicate in English, it makes it easy for English speaking people to visit foreign lands.

Studies over the past decade have shown the scientific advantages of speaking a second language. Recently, science writer for The New York Times, Yudhijit Bhatacharjee explained that multilingualism's benefits are not limited to practical benefits such as easy communication. Multilingualism improves the brain's cognition because the brain learns to switch between various languages, thus, the muscles are strengthened. Bilinguals have "a heightened ability to monitor the environment" than monolinguals as bilinguals are accustomed to swapping information. Thus, bilinguals' minds are better at maintaining focus and holding information. In addition, The Wall Street Journal writer Shirley Wang wrote that the onset of the symptoms of dementia was delayed in people who spoke two or more languages. She writes that a study in 2004 led by Dr Ellen Bialystok and Dr Fergus Craik found that bilingual people were better at blocking distracting information than monolinguists.

Yet, the aforementioned scientific findings still don't tempt me to study a language. The key is to make foreign language studies mandatory from an early age in Australia similar to the European or Asian countries that have made English a compulsory language. By starting at an early age, children are less likely to question why they are learning a foreign language. It becomes accepted as the norm. After learning languages briefly in high school I can only speak a few disjointed sentences in my studied languages. I would be unlikely to get far in Paris by repeating the phrase "Je suis Australienne". Sadly, several friends usually those whose families migrated at least two generations ago, rarely speak their heritage languages fluently. If there had been a foreign language policy in Australia, I might have been able to write this article in German or Japanese. Although British colonisation has impacted on the globe by instilling English as a global language, it is important that other languages are not forgotten.

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About the Author

Rebecca Simpson is a third year Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney majoring in government and international relations. She is a freelance writer for Switched on Media and writes for various other publications in her spare time.

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