The European Survey on Language Competences and the British Academy both agree: British teenagers are officially the worst at learning languages. And especially French, the first foreign language for most of us. Sweden, Malta and the Netherlands come top of the class.
There are a few easy targets when it comes to pointing the finger. The global dominance of English, for example, which traps us in “a vicious circle of monolingualism”. And then there is the awkwardness of French itself: no one ever really gets it right, least of all the French themselves. From time to time I have been known to say to some native French speaker, Monsieur, do you mind speaking proper French for a change instead of that bastardized argot? It’s funny, that never goes down too well. At least you get to hear a spectrum of contemporary French expletives.
But we need to assume responsibility for our own failures. It’s a car crash all right, but we can’t pretend someone else is at the wheel. The fact is that we have been getting it wrong for some time. I was once drafted into a school to try to remove the sword from the linguistic stone. In one term. We called it “De Zéros en Héros” and it wasn’t that hard. The key was: Keep it real! We immersed ourselves in the language as it was really being used: chunks of real films, real books and real songs.
Nowadays Twitter makes it even easier. And contemporary. I liked to use the opening sentence of Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte”. Now you can just click on the L’Equipe website and find out what Beckham is getting up to in Paris: “L’Anglais aurait réservé jusqu’à fin juin ‘la suite impériale’ au Bristol”. For anyone who is not into le foot, there is always Marieclaire.fr. The best way to learn French is to forget learning grammar and just talk about everyday things, using French as your medium. You have to live it and feel it. Integrated, not segregated.
There’s also one slightly subversive approach for anyone wishing to learn French: start with Spanish. It’s a trick I’ve picked up from my wife, who teaches Spanish to children from the age of four (her nine-year olds even made a film that won the Spanish Embassy prize – google “Martín Pescador film”). You have to fall in love with a language. The point about Spanish is that it seems to fall in love with you too, it is so yielding and willing. Once you’ve cracked the Spanish, the French is a doddle.
And talking of Beckham: I was a bit disappointed that he could only manage “Bonjour” at his Paris-St Germain press conference. It’s a start. But I reckon I could soon get him up there with Sartre and Camus.
Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University and is the author of ‘The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus’