This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
(Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered)
I am very pleased to be with you today at the Ismail Qemali University and to participate in this event. I think this is a useful step in the development of the relationship between the British Council, the cultural and educational arm of the British government overseas, and your university. This is a relationship which has a lot of potential for development. Today we will be discussing how to teach English and how to test it more effectively. As I personally have never had to teach English and I can’t remember learning it, then I am probably less qualified to comment on these subjects than anyone else in this room. So I’d like to discuss a simpler question: why should anyone bother to learn English at all?
As I see it, there are three reasons. Firstly, to learn any language is an enriching intellectual exercise. As the Emperor Charlemagne said, to have a second language is to have a second soul. All languages have their richness and beauty – your own language is a particularly ancient and interesting one. But English is by now the mostly widely spoken language in the world. In terms of native speakers, there are still more people who speak Chinese and Spanish than English, but if you factor in second language speakers English is well ahead. So in terms of value for your money and time, English is a good choice. Secondly, English has become the language of professional communication. So the vocabulary of, for example, aviation, shipping, international finance is almost invariably based on English. This process is accelerating. In my lifetime I have seen French fall away as the main language of diplomacy, and German fall away as the language of scientific and medical research and publishing. So English is important not just as a means of communication, but also as a vehicle for pursuing a wide range of careers. Thirdly, and linked to the first two, is the volume of material in English on any subject you could possibly be interested in. Here again, the process has accelerated as we have gone beyond published books and journals to material on the internet.
Actually, in historical terms, the rise of English is a relatively new phenomenon. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the language of international communication in Europe was French. The unification of the national states in Germany and Italy brought the development of German and Italian as consciously modern languages and rivals to the dominance of French. The role of English emerged from two explosions of genius in the English speaking world, the first in the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the second in the United States in the middle of the twentieth. These historical moments were not just about technology, but about institutional and cultural change. Over a period of one lifetime in Britain, the country created the first industrial nation, the first country in which, like Albania in the last census, more people lived in cities than in the rural areas. Britain created the technology of the steam age, railways, factories, modern mass productions. It built up the first truly global commercial structures and the largest Empire the world has ever seen. But it also created, over a period of thirty or forty years, institutions that we now take for granted such as parliamentary democracy, modern financial structures and most importantly the joint stock company, the foundation stone of the modern global economy. We also saw the emergence of modern lifestyles, where men and travel to work by bus or train, and modern leisure activities. The notion of going on holiday to sit on a beach was invented in Victorian Britain. It was considered a rather strange idea at the time, particularly as the sea around Britain is a lot colder than it is in Vlora. The rules of football, rugby, cricket and boxing were invented in Britain at exactly the same time. These days these games are global property: the Americans beat us at boxing, the Indians beat us at cricket, practically everybody beats us at football. But the link between the English language and these cultural goods encouraged the spread of the English language.
The second moment of genius in the English-speaking world came in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Here again we saw American commercial, political and technological dominance. But more importantly we saw the emergence of the American way of life. American attitudes to personal freedom and choice, careers open to talent rather than class or influence, modern relations between men, women and children, social equality: all of these values were as important as money or technology. So people wanted to become Americans or live like them and we are still seeing the impact of this Americanisation of our lives not just on Europe but on the whole world. This was therefore the second big motor of the spread and dominance of English as a global language.
The reason why English is so easy to learn compared to most European languages is due in fact to the events of one day, 14 October 1066. On that day, Norman forces landed at Hastings on the south coast of England and the English army, under King Harold, marched to confront them. The two armies were very equal in strength and a fierce battle followed. At the height of the battle, King Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow and killed, and the English army was defeated. The English language in its recognizable form emerged as a fusion between the Norman French dialect of the invaders and the Old English of the indigenous population. So English was, right from its origins as a language, a language of inter-cultural communication. This means that it has a simplified grammar and a very wide and varied vocabulary, drawing on French and Old English, with also input from Dutch and Scandinavian languages. Had the arrow missed and the English won the battle, the people of England would today probably be speaking a language rather like Swedish, and you probably would not be learning it. It is an interesting thought.