Everybody's talking at me

Europe’s language problem solved

Forget budgets, forget fishing rights. the thing that truly divides one European from another is language. The way we think is largely determined by the words at our disposal – and as far as language is concerned, the European Union has no common currency. When the community was first established, in 1957, three of its members were largely French-speaking – France, Belgium, Luxembourg. The other three were Holland, Germany and Italy. Of those, the last two were hardly in a position, shortly after the second world war, to inflict their culture on the rest. Thus French was rapidly instituted as Europe’s lingua franca.

I have some personal insight into how this worked because when the UK joined up in 1974 my family moved to Brussels. I was enrolled at L’Ecole Europeene, where the offspring of officials were taught in their own languages. Once a week the various nationalities were mixed up for an afternoon’s lesson together. But I picked up my first specimen of lingua franca in the playground. Wherever I played, some larger child would run into me and shout, “Bouge!” (That’s French for “Move!”)

Shortly before I turned up, the French president, Georges Pompidou – conscious of the imminent arrival of the British in the European Economic Community, as it then was – sent a discreet memo to French officials urging them to defend their linguistic advantage. One of the first two British commissioners, George Thomson, did not speak French, so his cabinet of civil servants spoke English. But, according to one British official who worked there, as soon as Thomson left the room, meetings reverted to French. “We did everything in French,” remembers another, who has worked in Brussels for nearly 20 years and is fluent in several languages. “That was an advantage that native French speakers had over others – an enormous advantage.”

Almost two decades later, when another Frenchman, Jacques Delors, was president of Europe, French still retained its supremacy. The Financial Times reported “tension in the press room” in 1994, with non-French speaking journalists having to put questions in faltering French (“Je veux demander une question sur les bent bananes”) to English-speaking spokesmen and women, who were obliged to answer in French.

But the 1995 accession of Sweden and Finland vastly increased the use of English. Meanwhile, German reunification and the accession of Austria made German speakers more confident in their own language. One sign of this, noticed by interpreters in Brussels, was the gradual abandonment of Hoch-Deutsche, or High German, in favour of more idiomatic speech. Now, with the accession of 10 more countries to the EU, the pre-eminence of English and the secondary status of German are likely to become even more entrenched. The French have invested money in language schools across Europe, but this looks increasingly like a losing battle. Even in Italy, where French was for decades favoured as a second language, English is now more popular.

Thus a language well suited to analysis and abstract thought (French) has given way to something more fitted to description and anecdote (English). A language that has changed little for centuries – modern French audiences can easily follow performances of Moliere – has been replaced by a mongrel dialect that rapidly absorbs foreign words. Moliere’s near-contemporary, Shakespeare, is largely incomprehensible to many modern Britons.

As the holder of both an A-level in French and a pseudo-French forename, I don’t wish to gloat or to direct any animus towards other languages. With varying degrees of success I have, over the years, studied Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German and Spanish. (I once even bought a set of teach-yourself-Arabic books and tapes.) My grandfather, who lived in Hong Kong, spoke excellent Cantonese; my father cracked Russian; my mother, Italian. I have a daughter, 15 weeks’ old at the time of writing, who speaks no known language. Will she grow up polyglot? Or does the global might of English mean she need not bother? Should she, like the majority of her compatriots, sit back and enjoy passively the economic advantage of being born to an English-speaking family – while benighted foreigners expend time and money learning her mother tongue?

And will English establish itself, in the fullness of time, as the universal language to unite nations sundered by God (as described in the story of Babel)? Or will it inevitably fail – like Latin, abandoned as the obligatory language of worship by the Catholic church after many centuries; or Esperanto, ersatz lingo of the nerds, which never really took off at all?

At the European Parliament in Brussels, epicentre of our modern Babel, schoolchildren from across Europe have come to visit. In the vast central chamber, Glenys Kinnock MEP sits on the podium, surrounded by teenage delegates wearing simultaneous- translation headsets. Overlooking this from one of the interpreters’ booths, I pick up a headset and turn a dial allowing me to tune into any available language. On channel one, miraculously, Kinnock seems to speak in German. On channel 11, Swedish.

Simultaneous interpreting was pioneered at Nuremberg. It was an astounding innovation, halving the time the war-crimes tribunal would previously have taken. Before then, interpreters waited until speakers had finished before translating. “Simultaneous interpreting is a highly complex cognitive activity that requires the interpreter to simultaneously listen, analyse, comprehend, translate, edit and reproduce a speaker’s utterance in real time,” wrote Barbara Moser Mercer in the academic journal Interpreting. To get some idea how difficult it is, try watching TV and simply repeating what you hear – without even attempting to translate. “During a regular 30-minute turn,” continued Moser Mercer, “working from an original speaker whose speaking speed is between 100 and 130 words per minute, an interpreter processes and delivers final copy of an average of 3,000 to 3,900 words.” That is not much less than this article – and some speakers are much faster.

Interpreting is not mere rote-work. “When you go on mic, you have to assume as much as possible the persona of the person speaking,” says the English interpreter Kenneth Cleary. “If you are translating M. Le Pen, you have to translate his views” – even if you dislike them. A British interpreter was translating Silvio Berlusconi last year when the Italian president compared a German MEP to a concentration-camp guard. “She said she could not believe her ears, but the adrenalin was flowing. She just had to say something. The interpreter must, in a nanosecond, use what could be called nous: ‘Is this man really saying this? Am I going to ruin my career and cause a political incident?’ Can you imagine that stress?”

Olive Rayner, a senior English interpreter who is sitting beside me in the booth, learnt French, German and Latin at grammar school. After further study at Cambridge she applied to the European Commission in 1976. Officially her languages are English, French, Italian, Portuguese and German. She hopes soon to add Spanish. Every so often, in the course of her work, she jots words and phrases in the back of her diary. These have included: “Die Kuh vom Eis bringen” (German for “to get out of a tight spot”), and “fuite en avant” (French for “slippery slope”). She takes me for lunch with a colleague, Alan Rodger, at a nearby restaurant that claims to be Italian – but where the mostly Belgian staff pronounce tagliatelle without the final “e”. Over that dish and others, Rayner and Rodger patiently explain the sheer complexity of the interpreting system in Brussels.

As the EU has 11 official languages, there are 110 different translation combinations (such as English to Danish, Greek to Spanish or German to Finnish). Between them, the three or four people in each translation booth must be familiar with 10 languages other than their own. But with the accession of 10 new countries language combinations will rise to 420. Individuals such as the Portuguese interpreter, originally from Brazil but with an Italian passport, who also speaks Polish – or the British interpreter who speaks French and German as well as Czech, Slovak, Polish and Finnish – are exceptional. In the run-up to Europe’s latest expansion, it was suggested that only a few languages be retained as official – English, French and German. But that solution was never going to be acceptable, as no political leader could tell voters that their language was second-class.

Ideally, interpreters translate only into their mother tongue. But this ideal became impracticable on the accession of Finland, because hardly anybody outside Finland speaks Finnish. A new system was born: Finns interpret out of their mother tongue into a second language (usually English) which is in turn relayed by, say, Portuguese or Greeks. If this works satisfactorily it’s because the Finnish interpreters are a talented bunch, but it necessarily introduced an element of – so to speak – Chinese whispers into proceedings. This can only get worse with the forthcoming expansion, when new interpreters from the incoming countries will routinely be expected to work in the same way.

Perhaps conscious of this, some MEPs believe they will attract more attention if they speak English. This is not necessarily true. “Suppose you have a Greek member who thinks he will be better off speaking English,” says Rodger, stirring his caffe. “A certain number of people in the room will listen to him directly. They may not be convinced because he may not speak well. Others will listen to interpreters making the best of what he is saying – badly – in English. And that will be worse.”

Back in the translation booth, a screen shows a plus sign when interpreters are working directly from the source language. A minus sign indicates that they are interpreting on relay. As if to demonstrate, a Danish schoolgirl addresses a question to Glenys Kinnock while we are watching. Because none of the interpreters in the English booth speak Danish, they listen to another interpreter and relay that translation into English. The result reaches my headset slowly and in a markedly less confident manner than the preceding, direct translation.

It could be worse. Another sign on the screen, a double minus, indicates that the interpreters are on “double relay” (from the source language into another, then another, and finally into the target language). In this situation, speakers using Europe’s more obscure official languages will sometimes – perhaps frequently – come across worse than their mainstream counterparts, sounding less eloquent and less persuasive. Over time this will surely affect negotiations to their detriment.

If the French regret the declining use of their noble tongue, Europe’s smaller nations must almost inevitably feel that their own languages have second-class status. A measure of this is the willingness, or otherwise, of foreign governments to teach citizens the language in question. During the cold war, the British government compelled some of the country’s brightest young talents to study one particular foreign language for the sake of the nation. The writers Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and Michael Frayn, the former Bank of England governor Sir Edward George, and numerous actors, diplomats, academics and clerics were, as part of their National Service, intensively trained in Russian. It seems unlikely that anyone is similarly planning, at least for the forseeable future, to create a cadre of interpreters fluent in Maltese.

The language of hands
As if the linguistic arrangements in Brussels were not already sufficiently complicated, the British Deaf Association (BDA) is lobbying for British Sign Language to be acknowledged by the EU as a minority language. After all, more people use it than use Welsh. Last October, the association held a “Learn to Sign Week”. Still today anybody interested can find clips showing everyday signs on the BDA website.

One in a thousand Britons are either born deaf or lose their hearing by the age of two. That is approximately 60,000 people for whom being born to an English-speaking family is not in itself a great advantage. Or to put it another way: thanks to the ignorance of the mainstream community, being deaf in Britain is a bit like being Finnish in Brussels.

To find out more, I visited Mabel Davis, headteacher at Heathlands school for deaf children in Hertfordshire. Davis, who lost her hearing when she was seven, speaks with a Scottish accent and reads my lips. This proves highly effective, although once or twice we scribble in my notebook to clarify matters. As one of only a handful of deaf teachers, she is awesomely inspiring. She is also capable of being abrasive when fighting for what she thinks is right.

If we could all sign, says Davis, that would be “better for a truly integrated society than the pretence that is made at the moment”. A few years ago, she recalls, the UK’s National Union of Teachers held a conference on strategies for inclusion. Most of the delegates had disabilities: diabetes, blindness, missing limbs. During the lunch break, people got together to chat. Afterwards, Davis was the first speaker. “I said, ‘I hope you’ve all had an enjoyable lunch. You must have enjoyed sharing experiences.’ And they all smiled, and nodded. So I said, ‘The ones who came to speak to me please put up your hands.’ Nobody did. So then I said, ‘In a meeting where we came to talk about inclusion, I was the most excluded of all. If that is your attitude towards other people with a particular disability how can you expect the public to sympathise with any of you? Or is it just too much bother to make an effort to talk to someone who is deaf?’” The speech had a dramatic effect, although not one that was noticeable to Davis. “Someone told me you could have heard a pin drop,” she says.

Every year children from Heathlands move up to the local secondary school, Townsend. Davis continues to oversee their welfare while they are there. “We have nine children in each year at Townsend. They do about 30 per cent of the curriculum with the hearing children, supported by an interpreter. They do find it a bit stressful, like a jungle… There’s a big burden on the people who are expected to integrate” – a situation that may seem familiar to MEPs from Europe’s smaller states.

Some hearing children at Townsend do make an effort, learning to sign at voluntary lunchtime lessons – paid for entirely by Heathlands. “We advertise the lessons to our new children every year,” says Jenny Bramwell, who takes the class. At the start of term in September the children are enthusiastic. “But it clashes with the football club, so we lose a few of the boys. By November it has dwindled to something realistic.”

Today, the 10 girls and one boy in Bramwell’s class will sign vocabulary such as “car”. Demonstrating this, Bramwell turns an imaginary steering wheel. There is a common misconception that sign language involves merely spelling out, on the fingers, ordinary English words. In fact, sign is a rich language in its own right, easily capable of expressing a full range of thought. “The surface may appear simple,” writes Oliver Sacks in his illuminating book on sign language and the deaf, Seeing Voices, “but at every level – flexibility, grammatical, syntactic – it’s amazingly complex.” Among other fascinating characteristics, he notes that, “What occurs linearly, sequentially, in speech becomes simultaneous, concurrent, multi-levelled in sign.”

Having mastered the sign for “car” and several other everyday nouns, Bramwell’s pupils will learn how gestures and hand shapes fundamentally change – perhaps disappear altogether – when it comes to constructing sentences. To convey “a car driving into a garage”, for example, Bramwell does not use the steering-wheel sign at all but instead “drives” one open hand over the other. “It’s more like mime than a close rendition of spoken-language sentence structures. It’s a visual medium.” Partly for that reason, the vocabulary is fluid. Signs invented within deaf families rapidly spread among schoolchildren and then further out into the wider deaf community – as happened, recently, with a sign for “exams” that resembles the clanking of handcuffs. Before swimming lessons, deaf girls in class constantly invent new signs to explain why they can’t take part – because, Bramwell says, “they don’t want the boys to know they have their period”.

As this suggests, there are many reasons for learning sign language. The most worthy is to help create the “truly integrated society with equal opportunities” of which Heathlands’ headteacher dreams. More selfish is the opportunity to widen your repertoire of expression in a way that no spoken language can match. Right now, as you read this – unless you happen to be deaf, or know someone who is – you may not believe that sign could be useful to you. But you would have said the same, once, about other forms of communication that you can no longer do without, such as the mobile phone and text messaging. Think about it: you can sign while scuba diving; in a library or church; when working in noisy conditions; with your mouth full; and through double-glazing. For privacy, you can be sure you won’t be overheard through closed doors. You can also play “signese whispers” by transmitting a message from one person to the next while other participants turn their backs. Professor Jim Kyle of Bristol University’s Centre for Deaf Studies says spoken language is best at describing events through time, because sign language does not express tenses especially clearly. But sign is immeasurably better at describing space and movement. “You are better off giving directions in sign. And for somebody to describe a building, they could do that much better using sign. It’s an estate agent’s dream.”

What’s more, sign’s mimetic quality makes it fundamentally international. Though it varies considerably from one country to another, and even within parts of one country (the sign for “doll” in southern England means “toilet” in Scotland), sign is easy for non-native users to pick up. In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks reports that members of the American Deaf Theatre, touring Japan, were able to sustain rudimentary conversations with deaf Japanese just hours after arriving – something that users of spoken language could never have managed. Jenny Bramwell, likewise, recalls something that might conceivably get the European Parliament thinking about sign language. When teachers and pupils from Sweden visited Townsend recently, adults struggled to express themselves to each other using broken speech – while children from either side of the North Sea, using sign in the playground, swiftly worked out how to play together in peace.

I’d like to teach the world to talk
If we put our minds to it, we could all be multilingual. Or so says Michel Thomas, a Polish-born refugee, survivor of labour camps in Vichy France and agent of US counter-intelligence who founded a “Polyglot Institute” in Beverly Hills in 1947. He now runs Michel Thomas Language Centres in New York and California, and his tapes and CDs teaching French, German, Italian and Spanish are the best- selling language courses in the UK. After just eight hours of instruction, Thomas claims, beginners will have practical and functional use of whichever language they choose.

For Pounds 18,000 he will teach one-to-one and in-depth for three days, with a refund if you are not fully satisfied. He taught Grace Kelly French before her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning actress, remembers learning Spanish with him as “the most extraordinary learning experience of my life – unforgettable”. Woody Allen paid tribute to Thomas thus: “I had years of Spanish in school and could never speak a word (but) with Michel, you learn a language effortlessly.” The list of other celebrity pupils is too long to repeat here, but clients include diplomats, archbishops, professors of business and executives from General Electric, McDonald’s and Bertelsmann. The EU, hoping to raise awareness of its forthcoming elections, recently sent a trainload of journalists to Brussels and paid Thomas to teach them Spanish on the way.

His teaching method, which took him a quarter of a century to refine, is sufficiently unusual to have been granted a patent. In brief, it involves gradually building small phrases into longer sentences rather than whacking students with lists of vocabulary and grammatical terms. Meeting him in London, I ask what makes this process so successful. He takes time before answering in an accent that, rather like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, combines German with American. “There is nothing to memorise,” he explains. “You are not allowed to take notes. And no homework. That is absolutely not allowed. Not even mental homework.” Also: “If (students) make a mistake, that is fine. I will lead them back to correct their own mistake. I never correct them. The most important thing is not just to reduce but to eliminate all kinds of tension and anxiety that is associated with learning.”

Thomas never particularly wanted to be a language teacher – only to devise better ways of teaching in general. He has frequently sought to interest the educational establishment in his methods, only to be rebuffed. Suddenly fierce, he jabs at my notebook: “I publicly challenge any university language department to do this. I will show that I achieve more in three days than they cover in two to three years. They never take me up on this! But it takes only three days to call my bluff – they could blow me out of existence!”

He has produced dramatic results in less elevated academies. In 1997, he taught a group of 16-year olds in north London who had been told they could never learn a language. One of their teachers, initially sceptical, said afterwards: “Very impressive… He’s really on to something here.” His techniques included explaining to the class that they already possessed a French vocabulary of some 3,000 terms. Most English words ending -tion, -able, -ence and -ism are the same in French.

Even more remarkable is an account in Thomas’s biography, The Test of Courage, of the French lessons that he once gave at an inner- city school in Los Angeles. Thomas arrived to find police with attack dogs patrolling the grounds and a class of below-average students with violent tendencies. “But within two hours,” writes his biographer, “Michel was helping any student who bothered to listen through such complex sentences as: ‘If I had known you were coming to town this evening I would have made reservations for us at a restaurant and would have tried to get tickets for the theatre.’ ”

3724 words. First published 27 March 04. © FT Magazine