British teens are the worst at learning languages? Once you’ve cracked Spanish, French is a doddle

Immerse yourself in the language as it is used: real films, real books, real songs

Share
Related Topics

Nul points.

Twice.

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’

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor