The inevitable hordes of students celebrating up and down the country this summer after surviving their GCSEs and A Levels. Many of them felt relief at having completed their last ever French lesson, free to throw their Tricolore textbooks away and settle down to work they find more interesting, never again to wonder about how the Smith family would cope when ordering food on holiday in Provence.
But before Francophiles everywhere throw their arms up in protest at the news that yet more Brits have given up the quest to massacre their beloved language, the same fate is also true for German, Spanish and Italian.
While our European counterparts are renowned for their linguistic prowess, Blighty’s residents are mocked for our reticence to persist with anything more taxing beyond “Parlez-vous English?” Although military-style grammar drills and toe-curlingly awkward conversations may dominate our memories of childhood language lessons, venturing beyond phrase-book vocabulary arms us with a wealth of practical skills that range from effective communication skills to approaching French and German literary output with confidence.
Even if the worst-case scenario happens, there’s nothing like an energetic mime to get rid of any remaining vestiges of British awkwardness in a vain attempt to summon up the Italian translation for “contact lens solution” or “mosquito repellent”.
Rochelle MacKenzie-McQueen, an English and French Law student at Sheffield Hallam University, is critical of our lax attitude towards languages, insisting they are “important not only for our personal growth and understanding, but also for our nation's growth.
“Learning languages enables us to develop skills and gain a deeper understanding of foreign cultures. For me, languages are enjoyable. I can easily see my progression and love it when I can go abroad and speak the native tongue.” She says.
Ultimately, as Rochelle explains, mastering a foreign language “helps to break down social barriers [to form] a more tolerant, understanding society.”
The idea learning languages promotes a more tolerant society is also supported by Michael Moriarty, Head of the French Department at the University of Cambridge and the Drapers Professor of French at Peterhouse, one of the university’s colleges.
Professor Moriarty believes that foreign languages are of paramount importance because “without a knowledge of foreign cultures we remain, as a society, locked in our own inherited habits of thought. We take it for granted that only what has been done before is possible. We ignore intellectual and cultural developments in other countries, because we are ignorant of them. To understand our own society, we need a profound understanding of other ones. Language and literature, in the broad sense, are avenues to that understanding.”
Despite our best efforts to catch up with our multilingual European neighbours, it will take time to change our well-known aversion British aversion to languages for the better.
As Professor Moriarty points out, this reputation can sometimes seem more “smug” and “complacent” than funny, if our intensive pre-holiday vocabulary cramming deserts us mid-tricky situation and we resort to simply adding “o” on the end of every second word to make it seem more “Spanish”.
Thankfully, this negative reputation has not always preceded us, as “for hundreds of years, English aristocrats and scholars spoke good French, merchants knew the languages of the Mediterranean and at the time few foreigners troubled to learn English.”
Surely this provides enough encouragement to continue that (long-overdue) New Year’s resolution to persevere with French, Greek or even Swedish, if only for the intense self-satisfaction to be gained at the surprise of your European hosts when you wax lyrical (and in fluent French, of course) about the rich symbolism in Racine’s works or the pleasure of strolling to your nearest boulangerie every morning.