Language Series: Limitations of Britain’s stiff upper lip here and beyond

Communication is the exchange of meaning between people. Words, gestures and images make up the essential ways in which we share information and ideas. The first article in this series explores how we connect through language and what that means in relation to politics and culture, starting off with Britain and the stiff upper lip.

Illustration of Languages via Speakt

Languages come in all forms, from Latin-based languages that have been exported across the world via colonialism, English firmly established by British and American Imperialism to Cyrillic, the writing system for Russian and Bulgarian, they are always political and imbued with culture. As eloquently put by Scarlet Sena de Farias, an English teacher from São Paulo in Brazil:

Stepping outside of eurocentrism, Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken first language with more than 920 million speakers. Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi, form a writing system that consists of logograms, just another way of representing words. Anime enthusiasts around the world quickly become familiar with the Japanese phrases and customs that appear in their favourite shows. Manga fans adapt to reading right-to-left as is standard practice for scripts in Arabic.

Japanese Manga via Jakob

British Sign Language and English Braille are essential languages and writing systems for many Brits, yet children are not encouraged to learn them (or even about them) in the formal education system. British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language for over 87,000 deaf people in the UK, whereas English is often a second or third language. In Britain, children are taught at least one foreign language during their secondary school years, whereas those elsewhere on the continent study at least two. In 2019, almost 7,000 pupils undertook Latin GCSE examinations. How is it possible that GCSE students can study dead languages, such as Latin, but cannot obtain the equivalent qualification in BSL? There is also a wealth of art, literature and academic scholarship by deaf people, so a lack of course content is no excuse.

With 11 million people in the UK being deaf or hard of hearing, learning the basics of British Sign Language (BSL) should be the bare minimum in schools. In 2019, the Department for Education said it would work with subject experts to develop the GCSE course, following threats of a legal challenge from a deaf pupil’s family. Learning opportunities such as these would enable better communication with those around us and, ultimately, foster a more inclusive society. However, there has been no news on this proposal since the initial announcement, which suggests the global pandemic may have thwarted progress on formalising the qualification.

It’s no surprise that members of the deaf community launched the Twitter campaign #WhereIsTheInterpreter? out of frustration with the daily coronavirus briefings. While BSL interpreters were made available for some briefings on the BBC News channel, replays did not feature interpreters. Those who missed the first round would have to rely on subtitles or alternative interpreters from the community online. BSL and English are entirely different languages, so not all deaf people could read the English subtitles that flash quickly on the screen, leaving some in the dark or with gaps about the ongoing crisis.

Image of Boris Johnson via The Evening Standard

As for actually speaking foreign languages, Brits have a terrible reputation. Though the apparent linguistic competencies of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might suggest otherwise.

According to the British Council, the bad reputation is justified; Brits are the worst language learners in Europe and leaving the EU has not helped us to evade this reality either. A survey published by the European Commission revealed that 62% of those surveyed could not speak any languages other than English.

It’s not that Brits are incapable of learning other languages, it is a cultural problem; one that rhymes with Brexit. Some felt that the EU threatened British sovereignty, and abandoning the project would rectify that imbalance. As the right to govern oneself without external interference, sovereignty goes hand in hand with the ideas of supremacy and power. This also translates to controlling who can and cannot arrive on British shores. Speaking English exclusively further entrenches the hostile environment for immigrants, who are expected to adapt or suffer the consequences. Ideologically, Britain clings on to Imperialism and its Rule, Britannia! mentality; where Britain leads, the world should follow. So unless you’re using languages to show off like Boris Johnson, why learn them when you can impose English on everyone else. As such, the British upper lip remains stiff, but at what cost?

Illustration of Brexit via 2BM

I am not ashamed to admit that after struggling to express myself in other languages my eyes have watered, my upper lip my have even trembled. It’s natural to want to be understood, but burying your emotions into repression is not, quite frankly, it’s unhealthy. The anxieties that come with learning a new language are very real and progress is more difficult to measure than assumed. “How do you say [random sentence] in [random language]?” isn’t going to cut it. In truth, without being fully immersed some things simply cannot be absorbed because context is key. Beyond what we are taught at school, language-learning requires consistent practice. So none of this is a dig at those who do not speak other languages; instead, I want to demonstrate their cultural value and expand our imaginations of what languages are, exposing just how inseparable they are from politics.

I have studied many languages, including Italian, German, Arabic and Bulgarian. Although I didn’t get very far with the latter two in that list, I now speak French, Spanish and Portuguese (on good days). Some of my closest friends live in different parts of the world, while others, whose mother tongues are not English, live here. By communicating with them in a mixture of these languages, I have learned about their different cultures. So from untranslatable but hilarious phrases to coding languages, polyglots and my best (or worst) blunders, this Language Series will be filled with critique, reflection and wisdom from some very interesting people.

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