Once again, my post today is inspired by music I listened to on the walk to the gym. Once again, the inspiring artist is Will.i.am. For once, this post isn’t just a rant about his complete lack of lyrical ability.
Today, I want to talk about how Will.i.am (or possibly Cody Wise, who sings the chorus of the song) can quite decisively NOT speak Japanese, or if he can those aren’t skills that he is displaying in the song “It’s My Birthday”. In the song he claims “I can speak in Japanese/ Kawaī, kawaī, kawaī/” and then moves on.
This is an issue I think a lot of language students and linguists can relate to. No, you cannot speak a language just because someone taught you a single word. I’ve worked for years to come to the point where I will grudgingly claim I speak Spanish, and honestly despite studying for a Masters degree and having lived in Morocco for a year, probably wouldn’t claim that I can speak Arabic. So who are you, Will.i.am, to claim you speak a language by then repeating a single word.
Now, admittedly Will.i.am is an unfair scapegoat, because if we judge someone’s ability with language on the basis of them not just repeating words in a song I doubt he qualifies to actually speak any language. However, the fact remains that learning languages is hard, but ultimately very rewarding, and it’s frustrating to see people make light of the hard work which we linguists put in.
And that’s not all. If you boldly go into a bar in Spain and brag to your friends “Don’t worry, I speak Spanish”, before shouting “Por fayvor, servaysa andale andale” you are giving the British a bad name as well. Children in countries all around the world are working harder and harder to improve their language skills because that is vital now for real-world commerce and international engagement, yet we’re still happy to have our kids pretend to study French for two years before it can be dropped pre-GCSE. What not only the education system, but parents and guardians are failing to realise, is that though learning another language is hard work, it ultimately pays off. Instead of sending their child on exchanges or to classes, however, they go on holiday and insist on boasting about their own (lack of) language skills and perpetuating the issue.
I have been lucky enough to come from a mostly bilingual family who have nurtured a love of languages in me and pushed me to engage in language learning. That goes beyond my degree (I’m currently learning basic German using Duolingo, totally for free, just with the use of my internet connection) and I am so grateful for that, but I can’t help feeling that it shouldn’t be necessary. It’s a big world out there, which more and more people want to explore and which is more and more accessible. Why not take the time to learn more than how to say “where are the toilets” and “one beer please” and really enjoy wherever you are visiting?
It’s a big ask though, and attitudes aren’t going to change overnight. So for now, just stop claiming you can “speak a language” when you “can’t”.