Which language will our European children speak?

by Adriano Autino

Working since 1971 in the world of computer science, I have had to use the English language at least the technical one since my first working years. Furthermore, I have spent my "apprenticeship", the first 13 years of my working life, at the former Honeywell Information Systems Italy, a U.S. multinational. My passion for pop music (later for jazz), pushed me into fatiguing transcription of the texts of songs by many groups (the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimy Hendrix and all the great rhythm & blues singers of the '60s and '70s), by listening to records. My job also took me to foreign countries from time to time. And, since late '90s, the use of the internet to correspond and to exchange articles with astronautic-humanist friends in the whole planet, forced me to use the only language that allows to communicate with other people understand anywhere in our globalized world English.

One might think that I have discretely mastered this language. Whoever reads one of my English language writings, instead, maybe will understand what I had in mind, but surely will not be delighted by my style. In reading, I don't have great difficulties, but, if I venture myself into the reading of a novel without dictionary, I certainly don't succeed in relaxing and enjoying the plot. In conversation, I have no difficulty in making myself understood, but I lose a good part of what my interlocutor says, especially if he is speaking English as a mother-tongue, thus using plenty of vocabulary and fast pronunciation, with the inevitable dialect accents. If I listen to a CNN or BBC newscast, I have to concentrate to understand the meaning of what it is said and, if I allow my attention to wander a little, the words slip past me without penetrating the sphere of my understanding.

Am I a blockhead, therefore? Maybe a bit, yes: despite a lot of practice, I keep on not feeling the English language as mine. Yet I have always continued to have a certain facility for foreign languages, and this was also the opinion of my teachers (I'm also speaking about the ones which tried, in more recent times, to teach me some Russian and some German). Where, therefore, is the fault? To learn a language, after all, doesn't depend on intelligence: some very stupid or ignorant people understand their mother language. Naturally I am not speaking about the conceptual contents, where we are limited by circumstance not only by our degree of intelligence, but also by the type of received education. I mean the ability to grasp the meaning of the language also without concentration, just for the fact that we are standing within earshot of a source of the spoken message. Such ability also allows quick enough deducion of the meaning of words of which we don't know the meaning. Or, at least, we are able to isolate them from the rest of the discourse, avoiding a gap in general understanding.

The school and the environment in which I grew up, didn't succeed in giving me this ability with the English language. And it would have been so profitable to me, in a lot of working and leisure experiences. Such an ability would have been useful, to me, who am 55 years old this year; and I have lived most of my working life in Italy, when this country didn't belong to the European Union.

How useful, will this ability be for the children that today are 5, 10, 13 years old?

The answer is simple: it will be essential. In Europe in ten years, the ones which will not know English language as, and better than, Italian language, will be cut out, citizens of a B series.

The above forecast is already frightening, if we apply it to our children. But if we apply it to our country, Italy, it is even worse: if we won't teach to our youngsters to communicate in the new international context, Italy will have another reason besides the more and more worrisome technological and scientific backwardness (the country of Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci!), besides not having yet a vague idea of free market ethics to be considered a series B country. 

What do we need? Some simple things: it would seem that even politicians can get it (they instead do exactly the contrary!). There would not so much to be invented, it would be enough: 

  1. to conceive the English language as the second national language, and no more as a foreign language; 

  2. to go and see how the bilingual countries (there are some of them, also in Europe) manage the teaching of the English language;

  3. as very first footsteps, even before articulating more complex programs, priority should be given to conversation, since the most tender school age; at least a priority equal to the teaching of the grammar (after all the babies learn first speaking rather than reading and writing!);

  4. and to increase the weekly English language teaching hours, bringing them at least equal, wrt the hours devoted to the Italian language teaching (after all all other teaching hours are performed in Italian language). 

Why then is Mrs. Moratti going in the opposite direction, when she decrees the compulsory teaching of two foreign languages in the middle school, English and French, without increasing the already small number of hours , on the contrary dividing it in two? From bad to worse! Whoever is able to see (except Moratti!) that the current time is not enough to thoroughly learn one language? how could one learn two in the same time? Furthermore, she does not seem perceive at all the pressing demand to a change of paradigm, namley, to conceive of English language as the second national language.

There are two alternatives. Maybe we are seeing the nth demonstration of political stupidity, or maybe someone smelt a business opportunity: if the public school doesn't satisfy popular needs , customers will be available to pay for courses and private schools! 

In countries as The Nederland, using English language as second language for a long time, it seems that the focus is moving on to the concept of communication. The concept of communication is more interesting, since it includes different useful objects: grammar, conversation, lexicon, analysis of origin and of destination of the messages, analysis of the troubles and the communication protocols, etc... (all techniques partly borrowed from computer science, but useful enough to also analyze communication among humans). 

Even using simple common sense, if the first objective of the primary and middle school is to teach to our children to communicate in English language as if it were their mother-tongue, conversation assumes a role of primary importance. A good example is the learning of the mother-tongue: the school grafts the teaching of the grammar on an existing and growing lexicon. Why not to rule ourself in a similar way with the second language learning? Let's teach to speak, and then we will graft onto this ability the study of the rules. Furthermore: practical learning and experience stimulates the student to look at the rules himself, while the teaching of abstract rules before practice leads to grey, flat and discouraging results. And often it only succeeds in extinguishing enthusiasm and the natural curiosity of youth.

Having a twelve year-old daughter myself, the problem affects me not only theoretically. Nowadays I am overall interested act so that my daughter is not longer deprived of necessary teaching. The whole castle of political ignorance or bad faith appears more and more to be something from which we have to defend ourselves, rather than a tool for the improvement of the quality of our civil living. 

Perhaps it is not superfluous however to remember that many people of good will, uniting their efforts, could reverse the trend, dismiss the incompetent and cheating politicians, and set up really useful politics. 

If you want to give your contribute to the discussion about English learning and the school problems, visit the forum: 

School and Education Sistems

[English language editing by Michael Martin-Smith]

[006.AA.TDF.2004 24.01.2004]