Monday, 27 September 2010

Polish Linguistic Excellence by an English Dunce

A news item on has a link to a pdf document with some interesting eurostat statistics on foreign language capabilities. A posting on Polish for Expats had recently reminded me of a widespread feeling amongst Brits that they are not very good at foreign languages. We may give ourselves the excuse that we do not need to speak anything other than English, with various levels of comfort being gained for this, but we still admire the capability of foreigners to speak our language well: on the dance floor in Spain, in business meetings anywhere in the world, etc. (The fastest English speaker I remember - in normal circumstances - was a Polish guy called Michał Kubisz.)

My early impression of Polish foreign language capabilities was not of how many people spoke English, but the strength of German capability. The people I worked with were selected because they spoke English, which they did excellently, so I did not see this as defining Polish capabilities. However, I was impressed by the number of people who not only spoke German, but expected me to do so as well. The first time I went outside Warsaw to a meeting (possibly in Lublin), the person interpreting for me first asked if I spoke German and then asked "why not?". People, recognising I'm a foreigner, still often speak to me in German. They sometimes speak English, but normally not.

The first Eurostat table shows the % share of pupils studying a first and second foreign language in 2008. I have included the EU average, although the full table needs to be looked at to understand what it really means about individual country capabilities.

_________________Primary (roughly 5-12)_____________Upper Secondary (15/16+)
_________________1st language_______2nd language_____1st language______2nd language

The main languages being learnt in the UK and Poland are unsurprising, although the UK's secondary concentration on Spanish provides an interesting counterbalance to media reports about Brits going to Spain for holidays not bothering to learn the language.

What clearly comes through though is the way in which UK foreign language learning collapses as children get older. Learning at primary level is useful, maybe vital in developing potential, but is unlikely to give many people the capability of speaking other languages as fluently as others speak English.

The second table shows the self-perceived skill % levels in each individual's best known foreign language for adults aged 25-64 in 2007. At least, I think the self-assessment covered each individual's best foreign language, rather than their country's best.

______________Proficient_____Good________Fair/Basic______None known_____Best language

What strikes me here is the unexpected extent to which Poland and the UK have roughly similar levels. Poland has had a much greater 'need' to learn a foreign language than the UK. There is generally greater incentive for Poles to speak a foreign language to communicate with people from other countries, even though relatively few people may need in practice to speak anything other than their own language. During school life, being forced to learn Russian in Poland may in principle be little different to learning French in the UK. However, the impression I get is that Russian was pushed pretty hard. Most of those who went through French lessons in England will find it difficult to believe that the potential Polish emotional resistance to Russian would make much difference. The age group covered will not all have been through enforced Russian learning and there may well have been (and be) teacher capability bottlenecks in Poland. Even so, I still find the detailed results surprising.

I therefore suspect another factor reflecting the self-assessment nature of the data. I have been surprised how many people have said they do not know, or know little Russian who understand reasonably well what is being said or what is written eg on TV. I even remember a dinner party where Poles who did not consider themselves any good at Russian began to speak with very little problem to a Russian guest. A little rusty to begin with, but subsequently pleased with how well they had done - "only 12 years at school". I wonder whether Poles have simply under-estimated their foreign language capability.

What of the future? I have little doubt that Polish capabilities and thirst for self-improvement give the potential for Poland to become one of those countries that give the appearance of being fluent in both their own language and English (and other languages as well). From what I understand, several Scandinavian countries don't bother putting subtitles on or dub English language films. I wonder whether this really masks a a view that people who don't speak English, or whatever, are viewed as less well educated. I can see such perceptions possible in a Poland of the future. However, the language learning pressure in Poland is very wide and the Polish international perspective is very broad - "what language are you learning now?". English and Germany are clearly important at the moment, but Russian may come back into favour, whilst Chinese, Spanish, ... I don't know, but a standard English capability does seem quite possible, assuming it stays as important as it seems to be at the moment.

To give an illustration of Polish language internationalism, I just got called to the television (again) to see a Polish group called Bayer Full singing one of their songs in Mandarin. They are popular in China. My daughter currently wants to learn Japanese, of which she is picking up words and phrases from Manga on the computer. If this was London, I would assume that the fad will pass. Here, I'm not so sure.

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