Saturday, 26 June 2010

Why are Scandinavians better at languages?

In response to one of my recent postings on constructed languages, someone commented:

Why the Nordic people succeed (at languages and just about everything)is a major interest of mine. I may differ a bit with your comments. In short the answer is free time: 18 months maternity/paternity leave ...... one month vacation for everybody who is employed , 80 paid sick days to care for children-to age 8, free health care, quality free pre-k[indergarten], quality free universities and much more.
So, is this true? Is free time the answer?

It's noteworthy that the gentleman who left this comment is American, where I understand employees only get as little as 2 week's paid leave time from work and it seems that other services are not as good/cost effective to the individual as they are here reported to be in Scandinavia. However, the situation in the UK resembles the Scandinavian one as described above far more than it does what I understand the US one to be, but does that mean that Brits are good at languages? That they use their free time to learn to speak other languages?

In a word: no. We too have 4+ weeks per year paid leave, plus another 1-2 in public holidays (depending on who you work for) and access to maternity/paternity leave programmes. albeit shorter ones. We too have comparatively good and 'free' health care, pre-school provision and so on. We do now have tuition fees for higher education, but this is a relatively new phenomenon and doesn't seem to have affected the average Brit's interest in foreign languages in the least! Most Brits barely know a word of any language, save a few expressions they may remember from school or from the media (a favourite TV show, a popular song etc), and most don't really want or see the need to.

Last term I had a Swedish classmate, a 19/20 year old lad taking a year out from uni to come and improve his Chinese. He spoke excellent English and had also learned German and Spanish in school - from a very early age too! His comments both about what he'd had to learn in school and why, confirmed my belief that foreign languages are stressed as very important in Swedish schools and that kids there are expected to get a grip of as many as they can in order to communicate with non-Swedes. I also seriously doubt that the Scandinavians use their leave time to study languages under the banner of caring for sick children or being on holiday/vacation! They already have the language skills from school.

It isn't a matter of free time, it's a matter of viewpoint - how important is this to me?


Rachel Cotterill said...

I think you're right. If you speak a "small" language (in terms of geographic spread / number of speakers) then you have more incentive to learn languages. If that is institutionalised (e.g. earlier and more comprehensive language teaching) then so much the better. So many British kids grow up believing they "can't" learn foreign languages, which is very sad.

Sara said...

It's absolutely right that the fact that all Scandinavian countries are small is the major incentive to learn foreign languages. The authorities have realized this since long and English is compulsory for at least six years (from about age 9) and has been for quite a few decades now. In addition, you ‘re encouraged to take yet another language from the age of 13 (used to be French or German, now Spanish is catching up in popularity).
But in order to learn a foreign language to any useful level (tourist or professional) you also need to hear, read and speak it outside of class. Here in Sweden we see a lot of English language TV and movies and also quite a bit from other countries. And none of it is dubbed , unlike in for instance Germany and Spain.
The long vacations (minimum 5 weeks per year + 5-10 days bank holiday) are important though, because people do travel abroad a lot and thus get a good opportunity to practice their language skills.
It’s understandable that US citizens with their short vacations doesn’t travel abroad a lot (and when doing so, stay a very short time at each place), but sometimes their language skills are ridiculously low – i.e. their skill in English. For instance, in international companies you can get complaints from US office that the internal information needs to be translated to US English (from say British English or some kind of international variety). Seriously, if you got problems understanding either elevator or lift, you need to improve your English skills. The rest of us in multinational companies have to get by with whatever English we know (which in case of other Europeans might be their third language, as German and French has upheld strong positions as second language longer there) and swallow every English served to us (Australian, Canadian, with Polish accent, etc.)