English: “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set”

This famous line from England’s national anthem, “Land of Hope and Glory”, written in 1902 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, A C Benson, to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1, often scorned by the talking classes as fanciful nonsense (they should compare other countries’ anthems) is increasingly seen to be true of the English language, England’s greatest cultural gift to the world.

President Sarkozy’s reported announcement on 26th January that all French children, who already learn English from the age of six, will in future have to start learning English at the age of three in their nursery classes, has naturally provoked intense opposition among literary and journalistic commentators in France, but is a sign of the times in many parts of the non-Anglophone parts of the world – Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, China, India, for instance.  These countries’ peoples see facility in English as an indispensable part of the mental equipment of any person educated to secondary school level.  The pity is that in many parts of England itself, the cultivation of properly articulated and written English is hampered and resisted by the official classes and parts of the teaching profession.

Translation services provided at public expense

Among the official classes – local and central government, the national health service, local education authorities, benefit offices – there is an obsession with providing information leaflets in as many as 20 different languages, even in rural areas where there is scarcely an immigrant to be seen.  Where leaflets are not so provided, there is often an offer to provide translation facilities on demand at public expense.

No other country in the world does this for transient residents or even those admitted for settlement.  Often the leaflets apply only to British citizens and non-citizen residents who should have learning English as their top personal priority.  One way of ensuring that some don’t bother is providing facilities in their native tongues.  This also encourages another rights culture.  One group of Polish workers at a factory in East Anglia demanded their work contracts should be written (not just translated) in Polish which would actually render them null and void.  No other country, least of all Poland, would for instance countenance a demand by their immigrant Russian workers to have their contracts written in Russian.

Spoken English

Many watching ITV1’s popular “Dancing on Ice” show will have been struck by the contrast between the spoken English of the international stars and that of the “celebrity” stars, who are their partners in the competition.  Some of the international stars are Anglophone – American and Canadian principally, but others are continental European.  All speak clearly, in different accents of course.  By contrast the diction of many of the home-grown “celebs” is impoverished and barely intelligible – “sommat”, “fink” and so on – delivered as a yacking series of glottal stops like someone sawing rough timber.

The tragedy is that many in the teaching profession, even actual English teachers, treat spoken English as a class issue.  They really believe that correcting their own and their pupils’ poor spoken and written English is denaturing them in some way, “detaching them from their roots”, making them (horrors) middle-class.

What teachers and sundry educational pundits are doing by their policy of not correcting poor English is confining their pupils in poverty-stricken cultural prisons from which educationally-demanding private sector jobs have long departed, never to return, as popular “soaps” like “EastEnders” implicitly convey.

Many private-sector companies lose business week after week by manning their reception desks and call centres with people who can barely be understood by other English speakers outside their own geographical areas like the Midlands, Liverpool, the North East and the East End of London, let alone by continental Europeans, Latin Americans and Middle-Easterners.  A particular example of companies’ disregard of accurate spoken English is the habit of the banks and other nationwide undertakings to outsource many of their call-centres to India where some, though not all, English pronunciation is intelligible only to other Indians.

The test of good English speaking is intelligibility, which mainly comes down to precise articulation of consonants rather than accent (vowel) sounds, and not gabbling – running the words themselves together.

The late Brian Redhead, who anchored the early morning “Today” programme on BBC Radio 4 for many years, had excellent articulation, understandable by all who claimed to understand English, while clearly retaining an accent recalling his early years in the North East of England.  Likewise George Bush senior’s articulation in his New England tones is probably, I guess, intelligible to all English speakers anywhere in the world.

There is in fact nothing better which young persons of any academic level can do to get themselves a job than improving their English speaking and writing abilities. (See Queen’s English Society.)

Top| Home

Leave a Reply

Top| Home