By Richard Dawkins
Author’s note: An abbreviated version of this article was published in Prospect, Aug. 2016.
A legend of uncertain provenance has it that Winston Churchill, addressing a French audience about lessons learned from looking back on his own past, inadvertently raised a laugh: ‘Quand je regarde mon derrière, je vois qu’il est divisé en deux parties égales.’ Most Anglos know enough French to get the joke. But alas, our knowledge doesn’t go much further than Churchill’s own. Whatever languages we may have learned at school – French and German in my case (as well as classical Greek and Latin which probably influenced the way I was taught modern languages) – we may be able to read a bit, but our spoken language performance should mantle us in shame.
When I visit universities in Scandinavia or the Netherlands it goes without saying that everybody there speaks English fluently, and actually rather better than most native speakers. The same applies to almost everyone I meet outside the university: shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, bartenders, random people I stop in the street to ask the way. Can you imagine a visitor to England addressing a London cabbie in French or German? And you’d have little more luck with a Fellow of the Royal Society.
The conventional explanation goes like this, and there’s probably something in it. Precisely because English is so widely spoken, we don’t need to learn any other language. Biologists like me tend to be suspicious of ‘need’ as an explanation for anything. A long-discredited alternative to Darwinism invoked ‘need’ as the driver of evolution: ancestral giraffes needed to reach high foliage and their energetic striving to do so somehow called longer necks into existence. But for ‘need’ to translate itself into action, there has to be another step in the argument. The ancestral giraffe mightily stretched its neck upwards and so the bones and muscles lengthened and . . . well, you know the rest, O my Best Beloved. The true Darwinian mechanism, of course, is that those individual giraffes that succeeded in satisfying the need survived to pass on their genetic tendency to do so.
It is conceivable that a student’s perceived career-need to learn English provided the causal mechanism of a redoubled effort in the classroom. And it is possible that we whose native language is English take a deliberate decision not to bother with other languages. As a young scientist I took remedial German lessons to help me participate in international conferences, and a colleague explicitly said, ‘Oh you don’t want to do that. It’ll only encourage them.’ But I doubt that most of us are that cynical.
I think the following alternative explanation should be taken seriously if only because, unlike the ‘need’ hypothesis, it offers the possibility of doing something about it. Again we start with the premiss that English actually is much more widely spoken than any other European language. But the next stage in the argument is different. The world is continually bombarded by English (especially American) films, songs, TV shows and soap operas. All Europeans are daily exposed to English, and they pick up English in something like the way any child learns her native language. The infant doesn’t strive to satisfy a perceived ‘need’ to communicate. She effortlessly picks up her native language because it is there. Even adults can learn in something like the same way, although we lose part of our childhood ability to absorb language. My point is that we Anglos are largely deprived of daily exposure to any language other than our own. Even when we travel abroad, we have a hard time improving our language skills because so many whom we meet are eager to speak English.
And the ‘immersion’ theory, unlike the ‘need’ theory, prompts a remedy for our monoglottish disgrace. We can change the policy of our television stations. Night after night on British TV we’ll see news footage of a foreign politician, football manager, police spokesman, tennis player, or random vox pop in the street. We are allowed a few seconds of French or German, say. But then the authentic voice fades and is drowned by that of an interpreter (technically not true dubbing but ‘lectoring’). I’ve even heard this happen when the original speaker is a great orator or statesman: General de Gaulle, say. That is lamentable for a reason over and above the main point of this article. In the case of a historic statesman, we want to hear the orator’s own voice – the cadences, the emphases, the dramatic pauses, the calculated switches from strong passion to confidential quiet. And we can get these though we may not understand the words. We do not want the expressionless voice of a technical interpreter, or even an interpreter who makes an effort towards a more dramatic rendering. A Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton might make a better orator than a General de Gaulle, but it is the statesman we want to hear. How sincere is he? Does he mean it, or is he just playing to the gallery? How is the audience reacting to his speech? And how well is he taking their reactions? Quite apart from all that, and returning to my main point, even when the speaker is no de Gaulle but an ordinary citizen interviewed in the street, we want the opportunity to learn French, or German, or Spanish or whatever it is, in something like the way so many Europeans pick up English every day from their television news.
The power of the ‘immersion effect’ is incidentally demonstrated by the memetic spread of American expressions to Britain. And the ‘upspeak’ of British and American youth, whereby statements sound like questions, can probably be traced to the popularity of Australian soap operas. I believe it is the same process, inflated to the level of language itself, which accounts for the proficiency in English of many European nations.
When it comes to the cinema, countries are divided into those that dub and those that subtitle. Germany, Spain and Italy have dubbing cultures. It’s been suggested that this is because the transition from silent films to talkies took place under dictatorships bombastically eager to promote the national language. The Scandinavians and Dutch, by contrast, use subtitles. I’m told that German audiences recognize the voice of ‘the German Sean Connery’, say, as readily as we recognize Connery’s own distinctive voice. True dubbing of this kind is a highly skilled and very expensive process, involving meticulous attention to lip-synched detail. For feature films there may be respectable defences of dubbing, although I always prefer subtitles. But I’m in any case not talking about dubbing in the expensive, lip-synching world of feature films and television drama. I’m talking about the daily ephemera of news broadcasting where the choice is between two cheap alternatives: subtitling on the one hand, or fade-out plus voiceover lectoring on the other. It is my contention that there is no decent defence of the voiceover policy. Subtitles are quite simply always better.
It’s ridiculous to doubt that there’s enough time to prepare subtitles for news stories. Almost all the news coverage we see is not live but rolling repeats, so there’s plenty of time to write subtitles. Even for live transmissions, and even setting aside (still imperfect) computer translation, speed of preparing subtitles is not a problem. The only remotely serious argument I have ever heard in favour of the voice-over is that blind people can’t read subtitles. But deaf people can’t hear voice-overs, and in any case modern technology offers serviceable solutions to both handicaps. I strongly suspect that if you ask TV executives to justify their policy you’ll get nothing better than, ‘We’ve always done it and it’s simply never occurred to us to use subtitles.’
There are those who say they ‘prefer’ voiceover to subtitles. My ‘General de Gaulle paragraph’ was, I suppose, an expression of personal preference the other way. But personal preferences vary and are often evenly balanced anyway. I want to make the case that frivolous personal preferences should be outweighed by serious educational advantages which go in only one direction. I strongly suspect that a change to a sustained subtitling policy would improve our language skills and go some way towards relieving our national shame.