Anglonormativity: How the study of languages can make us more tolerant

For myself and many others, the referendum on EU membership was something of a rude awakening.

Perhaps it oughtn’t have been. The warning signs were there—the hostile environment policy; the Europhobic UKIP vote quadrupling at the last election; Britain’s most senior political figure painting migrants as a “swarm” of parasites.

But, disposed to internationalism by my cross-cultural upbringing, my vantage point had been compromised. A child of a union characterised by openness and understanding (literally—my parents met through Erasmus), I lived among a people that now wanted out.

Brexiters might object to an account of their movement as inimical to “British values” of “mutual respect and tolerance”. Very well. Let us grant them, purely for the sake of argument, that it is not so much a screw-you to the citizens of Europe as an offer of friendship to economies beyond its borders.

Which economies specifically? The U.S. and the Commonwealth provide the meat of the response—that is, 54 countries (Mozambique aside) where the language of the English enjoys a privileged position. The expansion of Britannia’s mother tongue was a function of the growth of her empire; and the Commonwealth of Nations, its postcolonial spinoff, features much the same cast of anglophone characters.

Considered in these terms, Brexit is no less narrow-minded. Wherever one places the emphasis, it rebuffs the linguistic other in favour of cultures more assimilated to an anglophonic norm—and this is not a new departure.

Winston Churchill (quelle surprise) believed that Brits and their American brethren had a “birthright” to use English in their dealings with all “foreigners”.

A generation on from Churchill, future prime minister, James Callaghan, was equally on guard against any challenge to anglophone ascendancy, reacting to the suggestion that French be recognised as Europe’s lingua franca with the condescending riposte: “Non, merci beaucoup”.

And the contempt for all those who don’t speak perfectly pronounced English has found supreme expression in the junta of hard Brexiters. A few weeks ago, the ironically named Mark François saw fit to sneer at Michel Barnier’s accent, as if somehow possessing the intellectual high ground—as if a proper response to someone having the grace to speak your language is to mock them for making the effort.

Such anglonormative attitudes stem from a certain amour propre—a puffed-up perception of our place in the sun.

To be sure, in 46 countries worldwide (nearly one in four UN member states), a majority of the populace speaks English. In a further 43, it is de jure and/or de facto an official language. All told, English is the first or second tongue of 1.268 billion people—2 million more than the combined global total of the five largest languages native to the EU (Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Italian, respectively).

Even so, it would be wrong of us—both factually and morally—to presume that the world speaks English. It doesn’t, nor should it have to.

For one thing, 1.268 billion—though undoubtedly an imposing figure—amounts to less than a sixth of the planet’s population.

For another, 898.4 million of those 1.268 billion were not raised in English, and are therefore multilingual. As of 2015, there were more learning the language than French, Mandarin, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese put together—and each of these students has an edge over the anglophone monoglot. For they can interact not only with English speakers, but with those of their vernacular, as well.

By contrast, the British polyglot is increasingly an endangered species. In each of the seven years to 2018, the proportion of those taking language-based courses at UK universities fell. Extending the range to 2002 onwards, it contracted by almost a third, from 6% to barely 4%. Were this percentage share to regress in a linear fashion at the rate that it did from 2011, the study of languages as an academic discipline would be extinct by 2041.

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

This disinterest in linguistic education is in turn reflected in the prevalence of monolinguals: comprising 65.4% of the UK population, they were relatively more numerous in 2016 than in any EU state or (potential) candidate country, in addition to Switzerland and Norway. In other words, the British came last of 34—an indictment not just of the national curriculum, but also of the national ethos.

For communication cannot be divorced from its human dimension. The choice of a linguistic medium establishes on the one hand an implicit hierarchy (in favour of the mother-tongue speaker), and on the other a debt of gratitude which we anglophones seem not to acknowledge.

Of course, the penchant for familiarity is a part of human nature. We cannot be blamed for wanting to go down the easier of two routes—especially as the non-anglophone world appears to have acquired English of its own volition.

Except that it hasn’t—not historically. The juggernaut was driven first by British political imperialism, and subsequently by American cultural imperialism.

Linguistic conquest has never been so simple as in the age of the internet, of social and mass media, of music and movie streaming—of Google, Facebook, Spotify, Netflix. The tech and news industries churn out neologism on neologism; these are invariably transplanted intact into non-English lexical corpuses. Such is the threat allegedly posed to the French language by the invasion of anglicismes that the Académie française in fact issues regular guidance dedicated to rejecting these foreign substances.

Power—even such soft power as this—breeds arrogance and complacency; and, as the above statistics demonstrate, we have come to take it for granted, as speakers of the dominant language, that the stranger will speak it, too.

The subtext is that the Brit has no reason to bother with bilingualism. That is Johnny Foreigner’s job: he must assume that burden, he must put in a double shift in this nonreciprocal dialogue. This should be deemed a kindness, but it is now expected of him.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I mean by anglonormativity. We have laid claim to the “selfish advantage” against which Churchill, in his defence, did warn us.

This is not to say that everybody should be fluent in at least one other language. Admittedly, it would be nice; and a few European states—notably in Scandinavia and the Baltics—are not far from achieving universal bilingualism.

It is rather to ask that we check our anglophone privilege, that we act with humility, empathy, and tolerance whenever conversing with those who have gone out of their way to make such conversation possible. It is to request that we refrain from ridiculing their accents, to urge that we don’t turn our backs on a union that did us the service of adopting our language, that put up with our persistent exceptionalism.

Tolerance is perhaps the keyword here—indeed, in this article as a whole. Knowledge of the words and ways of the world will make us a more tolerant society. Or, to quote from a 2013 paper, “foreign language learning, accompanied by familiarisation with respective nations and cultures, makes people more receptive to novelties and more tolerant of diversity.”

What better antidote, then, to Brexit, Boris, and the behaviour of our tabloids—to racial profilingJ. K. Rowlingthe rise in hate crime, and the recent resurgence of antirefugee rhetoric?

Maybe, just maybe, if we all spoke a second language, if we trained ourselves always to think from multiple cultural perspectives, the tide of intolerance might begin to inch backward.

Alessandro Giacometto

Alessandro Giacometto is going into his third year at St John's College, where he reads History and French. He is about to embark on his year abroad in France, beginning in Biarritz and then moving on to Paris. When not in Oxford, he lives in Wokingham, near Reading.