Natalie Haynes: If we want to get on, we might need more than just 'bonjour' and 'au revoir'

 

When it comes to speaking another language, Britons are rarely the keenest students.

A survey released this week by a holiday website suggests that not only do two-thirds of us admit to knowing not one word of a foreign language, but one-fifth of us can't even understand the word "bonjour". Sacrebleu, as the French might say, if they wanted to be sure we hadn't a clue what they were talking about.

Apparently, the older we get, the gamer we become – almost half of the over-55s were happy to dust off their O-level French and give it a punt. Conversely, half of 16- to 24-year-olds admitted they had never tried to speak a word of the foreign language they'd learned at school.

With the Government willing to promote only science, maths and engineering as the cure for our recessional woes, it does seem as if they are missing a gargantuan trick. If 40 per cent of our exports go to Europe, wouldn't it be at least a slightly good idea if a few more of us didn't approach foreign language-speaking as being roughly on a par with syphilis for things you don't want to catch from the French?

Of those who did study languages at school, which are still compulsory to the age of 14, even if we have shamingly removed the need to at least try a GCSE in them, 21 per cent said they were limited to the words for hello and goodbye. Which rather suggests that they weren't paying attention to a single lesson in that language – and why would you bother if you were never going to have to sit an exam in it – as even a staggeringly stupid person could learn two words in five minutes, tops. Hell, you could perfect the accent in that time, too.

Some respondents admitted that they understood what was being said to them in another language, but were too nervous of making a mistake to try speaking it. This goes to prove what I have long believed – that we should teach Latin before any other language. First, you get to read Latin, and that is a lovely treat. Second, you will have at least a vague understanding of what's going on in all romance languages, which helps a lot with foreign newspapers and instructions. And third, the embarrassment factor is zero – Cicero will never leap out and mock your pronunciation.

www.nataliehaynes.com

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