I am speaking today at a conference in London, on the importance of learning foreign languages. It might seem a bit of a niche issue, but I believe it is central, and all too neglected in English speaking countries in particular. Forgive me the book plugs, but the organisers, International House, rightly see the relevance between my belief that we need to broaden the political gene pool, and the need to develop confidence in young people. Language and languages are at the heart of that. Indeed language is fundamental to all political life!

And later this week I shall be publishing here another speech I will be making on publication day, Thursday, at Europe House. It will range over many of the themes in the book, urge more people to get properly engaged in politics and may well touch on Brexit … the title is ‘what one generation does, the next can undo.’

The text of today’s speech as follows …

When we say the best things in life are free, we usually mean things to do with nature, and love. But I would add language into the mix. We do not pay to learn our mother tongue. We are born into it, for free, just by that act of birth, into a family, into a place, into a history, into a culture. 

We all have a mother tongue, in my case English, although, as is the case with many families, one of my parents’ mother tongues was different to mine, my dad being a native Gaelic speaker, born and raised in the Hebrides between the world wars, educated bilingually, but ending up on the mainland, to study to become a vet, and settling eventually in Yorkshire, James Herriot territory, where my brothers and sister and I were all born. 

The need for Gaelic, it must be said, was minimal in Keighley, as indeed it had been at Glasgow University veterinary school, and so his primary language of use, though never his mother tongue, became English. Perhaps my first memory of, or insight into, language as a concept came from our annual summer holidays in Tiree, the island where my dad was born and where his parents and several of his siblings still lived, and I would hear him speaking to them and it was so strange not being unable to understand my own father. I picked up bits and pieces, tried to learn through a book when we got home, and can still say a few phrases, and understand the odd word when I watch Scottish football on BBC ALBA. I didn’t stick with it, yet I think it may have been partly what inspired me to love languages sufficient for them to be by far my best subjects at school, French and German. 

One of the many reasons I loathe what Brexit is doing to our country is the  decline in the number of school and college exchanges, not to mention the turning away of foreign children whose parents have the ‘wrong kind of nationality’, despite those children being educated at schools in the EU. I have such fond memories of my first foreign trips, to Waterloo in Belgium, then a twin town trip to Krefeld in Germany. I was not fluent, far from it, but I got such a buzz from being able to understand street signs, headlines on news stands, menus, hold basic conversations. 

When it came to A levels, what to do? I had done well in most subjects. My Mum said that as we were going to be joining the Common Market, French and German were going to be important. So I went for it. As it happens English became the dominant language of Europe, and the world. And now, if I may mention the catastrophe of Brexit again, we are out of Europe, which has served to strengthen my commitment to languages.

Not much good has come of Brexit, or of Covid, but in a way they combined to helped me get my German back. Brexit because it has made me more European. Covid because Fiona, tired of hearing me say I wish I had never lost so much of my German, and alarmed at the thought of me being stuck in the house all day, signed me up for a series of online courses with the Goethe institute. Ich habe mich in die deutsche Sprache wieder verliebt. I fell in love with the German language again. 

As I happen to co-present what has to my surprise become the country’s most popular podcast, The Rest Is Politics, whenever I am interviewed I am often asked ‘so what podcasts do YOU listen to?’ And my honest answers are Acht Milliarden, die richtige Fragen and Phrasenmäher! As I say, Ich habe mich in die deutsche Sprache wieder verliebt

By British standards, I am a polyglot. By global standards, I am bang average English, fluent French (spoken not written), good German again now, and one sentence of Dutch from my days as a bagpipe-playing busker which, when I was exhausted and people were asking me to play some more, meant I could say: ik heb teveel op mijn doedelzak gespeeld.  I was thrilled when, having mentioned this on the podcast a few weeks ago, Rory Stewart was contacted by a Dutch friend to say my accent was pretty good. 

Getting my German back means I can also re-visit one of my university party pieces, namely trilingual renditions of ABBA songs.

Danke für die Musik, 

Die Lieder, die ich singe,

Danke für die Freude, die sie bringen,

Qui pourrait vivre sans ca,

Je demande en toute honneteté,

La vie qu’est-ce qu’elle serait

Without a song or a dance

Qu’est-ce qu’on est

Alors je dis

Danke für die Musik

For giving it to me … 

And yes, I can do the whole song, but don’t want to inflict four minutes of my singing voice upon you.

I rarely criticise the New Labour government to which I dedicated a fair bit of my life. I think we have seen since 2010 just how good it was over our thirteen years, compared to the multi-prime ministerial thirteen-year omnishambles currently on show. But I will do so now. I wish we had not downgraded language teaching. Of course curricula must move with the times and amid the technological revolution there were plenty of new skills essential to good learning. However, I believe learning languages is highly compatible with that learning, as indeed anyone who values the concept of ‘switching codes,’ which we all do in our speaking, would recognise.

I wonder if our general unwillingness or inability to match others in the language learning is not rooted in that very British arrogance that makes us think English is the global language and will always be the main language of business, trade, travel and diplomacy.  That it is currently is down to the power of the USA as well as the power of Shakespeare and the other masters of the English language. But given the rise of China alongside a relative decline of the USA, and with the UK so much less powerful than we were pre-Brexit, if I was a teenager having that conversation with his Mum about educational language choices today, I would say Chinese, Arabic and Spanish would be the languages to go for.

Perhaps because I am obsessed with football, when I did a bit of research for today, one of the first things the algorithm sent my way was a speech by Arsène Wenger to school children some years ago when he was manager of Arsenal. Google ‘Wenger on speaking foreign languages,’ and invite him to your next conference. The guy is so impressive, not merely in speaking so many languages, but in his understanding of their broader significance to us as individuals and to the communities, and the world, we live in.

French is his mother tongue. He was raised near the German border in post war Europe. He often went there and, unable to understand what was being said, and conscious of the barriers that lack of understanding raised, alongside the historical hatreds of war, he became determined to learn. He did well in German at school, and enjoyed the feeling of understanding more and more every time he went over the border. He was even more obsessed with football than I was as a child and as the sport had been invented in England, this made him want to learn English. He did so first at school but then, as a professional footballer in his late 20s, perhaps already with his post playing career in mind, he spent his holiday travelling to Cambridge – he was aware of the university’s reputation and assumed that was where the best English teaching must be – knocking on doors to find a cheap B and B, then spending his days learning English with teenagers in a language school. Once back home he read only English novels, looking up any word he didn’t know in his dictionary, making a note, memorising. As I do in German again. He also speaks Spanish and Italian and, because he coached in Japan ahead of Arsenal, a bit of Japanese too.

What is wonderful about his message to those children is that he linked his interest in languages growing up, and their influences on him, to what sort of adult he became, and what he eventually did with his life. ‘When I learned English I never imagined I would become a coach here. It shows how the choices you make as a young boy can dictate the rest of your life.’ His daughter, growing up mainly when he was at Arsenal, spoke French at home, English at school, went to Cambridge University and, like my father, became a bilingual vet!

And if we think Wenger is impressive on the languages front, what to make of Romelu Lukaku, the striker currently playing with Inter Milan, on loan from Chelsea. When a team is in the Champions League, to help the media, all clubs are asked to fill in a form listing their squad members alongside the languages they speak … When Lukaku was with Chelsea, it is perhaps sad, if unsurprising given our record as a country in this area, that every English member of the squad had only English against their name. Most of the foreign players had two or three languages. Lukaku had eight – French, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Flemish and Italian. And the UEFA form does not include the Bantu language of Lingala, which Lukaku also speaks due to his Congolese roots. So that’s an impressive NINE languages in total for a 29-year-old footballer. If ever anyone tells you footballers are thick, ask them how many languages they speak, and tell them about Lukaku.

I am in little doubt that my love of languages, and how we communicate, has been at the heart of anything I have done with my life, and what I continue to do now. I love words. I love the art of communication. 

I want to thank the organisers of the event for purchasing copies of my new book, But What Can I Do?, subtitled how politics has gone so wrong and how you can help fix it. And a lot of it is about how we speak, how we communicate, how we persuade. We do it through words and pictures, and often it is the words that paint the pictures. We do it through argument. 

Campaigning is about words. Debate is about words. Legislation is about words.

I focus a good deal in the book on the issue of confidence, and on the need to broaden the political gene pool. Did you know that one school, Eton, has produced three times more Prime Ministers than the Labour Party in our entire history. The last of these, Boris Johnson, should never have been allowed anywhere near power. That he got there was because he was born into privilege and then developed the kind of self-confidence that those in the leading private schools have drilled into them.

The Etonian PM before him, David Cameron, was not as big a liar or as big a charlatan as Johnson. But he did share that supreme self-confidence. He will go down in history in the main as the man who called the referendum on the EU which led to our exit. Cameron cannot say he wasn’t warned. Chancellor George Osborne was strongly against holding the referendum. Both François Hollande and Angela Merkel warned him that in holding a referendum on anything, let alone such a contentious and complex subject, a government risked being punished for other, seemingly unrelated, issues. Cameron, wearing what Hollande called ‘son masque arrogant de sérénite’, assured them he knew what he was doing, all would be fine. As to the huge concessions he was confident of securing to sell back home, on that too Merkel and Hollande warned him he was overstating the possibilities, that they would agree to nothing that went against the core principles of EU membership. 

So the confidence can sometimes go too far. Yet for many among the 93 percent in State schools, they are born with extra barriers to climb, and often have more put in their way as they go through school. Not their fault. Not the schools’ fault. Just what happens when you have an educated system skewed against the many in favour of the few. Voice 21 is an educational charity which teaches teachers how to teach the art of communication, which is so fundamental to everything we do. They want oracy, the skills of speaking and listening, to be on a par with literacy and numeracy, and I hope if we get a Labour government, they will go in that direction. Learning how to stand up and speak to an audience can be nerve wracking. Glossophobia – the fear of speaking in public – is up there with snakes and spiders as a fear. Conquer those nerves and it is great for confidence.

My love of language is probably why I ended up doing the job with which I am still perhaps most identified, with Tony Blair and Labour. Everything I do really is about words/language … 18 books, one of which I translated myself with the help of my Goethe Institut tutor, Andrea; journalism, as editor at large of the New European, in which one of the best features every week is Peter Trudgill’s column on languages; broadcasting and podcasting; consulting on strategy and campaigns; campaigning on mental health and other issues. It’s all about words. And you get better at words in your own language if you know how to express yourself in other languages too. 

There are so many benefits … like all the research showing that multilingual people are better at processing analytical tasks than the monolingual. If our mind is constantly switching between languages we develop that part of the brain used for problem-solving and filtering information. And a more active brain, it is said, can delay neurological diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Travel is one of the joys of life, and language the best route to a new culture. Traveling is more fun and a lot easier when the language barriers are down. You don’t have to worry about getting around. You can speak with locals without relying on charades or translation books. You can order food without asking for a menu with photos!

Even how sentences are ordered tells you something about that culture. Arsène Wenger tells some very funny stories about how the Japanese keep the verb to the end, and how that engages the listener more. And what does it say about the Germans, and about anyone who loves their language, that I can get so much pleasure from seeing how many subordinate clauses, or even better participial adjectives, that I can fit into one sentence? 

As it came naturally to most of us when we were growing up, we rarely give a second thought to how our native language works, but language learners are forced to be more conscious of grammatical rules and constructions of that language, which can give new insight into how they use their own. And when languages share similarities, it’s easier to apply your knowledge of one language to another and travel to different regions of the world. Knowing Spanish for instance, is helpful in learning and understanding other Romance languages like Italian, French and Portuguese.

I also want to speak up for so-called smaller languages. On our podcast recently we talked about the deliberate development by government of the Welsh language in the Welsh education system. We should protect and support languages.

According to the United Nations, half of the more than 6000 languages spoken in the world will disappear by the end of the century. Language is one of the most important means of preserving heritage. Only for about a third of the world’s languages do we have writing systems, so language itself is often the only way to convey a culture’s oral traditions. While not every language may survive amidst globalization, choosing to study a lesser-known language can help promote the preservation of minority languages and protect the cultural knowledge that comes along with it. When a language disappears, so does its culture and the body of knowledge it has accumulated. Just as all we lose something when a species dies out, so the same goes for languages.

The world is not exactly in great shape right now. A lot of the challenges we face – whether the climate crisis, the refugee crisis, cybercrime, terrorism, or the growing inequality between regions rich and poor – will require nations to act together better. To understand each other better. To develop stronger tolerance, solidarity and mutual understanding. To resist rather than pander to stereotypes and prejudice. Languages are central to all of that. We need multilingualism more than ever.

You are already aware from my ABBA madness that I love music. My favourite singer of all time is Jacques Brel, a Belgian singing mainly in French, though my God check our Marieke if you want to hear Flemish sounding beautiful. My recent German courses turned me on to Helene Fischer and Kirstin Ott. I love their voices and the melodies. But knowing what they mean just adds to the pleasure they give me. At the weekend I had such a thrill when my daughter Grace suddenly piped up that she had discovered a musician called Charles Aznavour, and asked if we had ever heard of him? So the next generation is thankfully sharing my love of foreign tongues in music. It is a joy. So are foreign language films and I am never happier than when I am watching a French or German film with subtitles and finding I don’t need to drop my eyes down to the subtitles as often as I used to, but I like the security of knowing they are there.

Well, I say never happier. There was once …  on a train to Nice in my early 20s, talking to a young woman sitting over from me for most of the journey, and when she asked me ‘d’ou en France vous venez?’ -‘what part of France are you from?’ I was so chuffed I thought I was going to burst. And she was so shocked – and impressed – when I showed her my British passport. I think her surprise at my fluency may well have been the reason she agreed to see me for dinner later that evening. She was called Bernadette and it was fun while it lasted. She even wrote a poem for me … mon cornemusier et son écharpe … my piper and his scarf … I had a Campbell tartan scarf which I sometimes wore when busking. And I am not sure cornemusier is even a word. Google translate says joueur de cornemuse. Cornemusier so much better.

Languages … so many benefits, so much to thank them for … love life, love language; love language, love life!