Now you're talking

By | 21 February 2014

Does learning foreign languages matter anymore, now that the whole world wants to speak English? Hilary Moriarty says “yes”

It took two terms of a weekly, two-hour Russian lesson to remind me of the joy of learning languages. That’s how long it took to reach a genuinely wondrous moment that I shall not soon forget. Nor will I forget the two terms of (mostly) agony.
The moment came in a role-play – the like of which did not occur in five years of French and seven years of Latin in the grammar school of my youth. But in the Russian class, we were asked in pairs to enact a scene at the border, one of us the incoming tourist, the other the border guard. From our meagre vocabulary, with frantic flicking for vocab at the back of the text book – alphabetical but with Russian alphabet! Nightmare! – my partner and I managed to conjure our little scene.
And something magical happened. We actually acted the scene. I mean, really, acted – in Russian! It will feature in my autobiography. My partner glowered and became the border guard recently lent to the KGB by UKBA. He was surly. He was deeply suspicious. He flicked the pages of the text book masquerading as my passport, he sneered with contempt. And I batted back – I became a diva, practically throwing fur stoles around my neck, demanding to see his superior officer, and report this idiot to my husband who was a very senior politician. I think I threw some one-word insults at him.
Teacher and class were – if I say so myself – transfixed. From us, it was an unlikely performance. My partner and I? Elated. Russian? No problem! My accent was impeccable. The vocabulary – maybe not so much. But it was such fun.
Which was more than could be said for most of the other hours in that evening class. I could not believe how I – I! – had turned into the naughtiest girl in the class. No, I had not learned my vocabulary. Yes, I was desperately trying to work out in which order the teacher would ask questions so I could have my answer ready. No I had not read the next chapter. Yes, I hated the young men in class who were Dutch/Polish/Czech, spoke four languages already and had a super-human capacity to read everything in advance, pick up everything in class, and become fluent in minutes.
I have spent years in front of classes telling pupils to do all the things I now would not do. Like the homework. Like preparing for the next lesson. I know – honestly, I really do know – how important these things are. I have had conversations with pupils – “Why the heck are you in the class if you really don’t want to do these simple, not-rocket-science things to enable you to do well? You are a bright student. . . yadda, yadda, yadda.” I know. Now leave me alone. And I’ll never again be so intolerant of lazy blighters lurking in the back of the class; because, reader, I am one of them.
Lazy I may have been, but I still got a kick out finding a discarded Russian paper in a London bus – Russian Metro, perhaps – and being able to make sense of the front page. Well, the gist – enough to look impressive to my neighbour in the rush hour.
So what is it with the Brits and languages? I have a theory that unless we get a language in the cradle, we really don’t like learning a new one because, however young or old we are, we believe ourselves to be sophisticated beings with a headful of reasonable and sometimes even interesting thoughts, and the new language reduces us to infants, with a vocabulary growing from zero at a painfully slow pace. So in our new language, we are for years unrecognisable, even to ourselves, and worse, exposed to the mockery of others.
Watching babies transform from tiny new-born infants to two-year-old tearaways is an object lesson in the acquisition of language. They say of babies that it takes a year to walk, and two to talk. And for them, while they are learning to talk, no one expects them to do anything more than listen and smile and maybe not cry, please. We talk to babies all the time, but they rest in the happy assurance that no spoken response is required. And when it arrives – “Da Da!” – it is greeted with joy all round, and much applause. No one expects the precious new word to be followed by a whole sentence, let alone the Gettysburg Address.
So getting from zero to hero in French or Russian or even – heaven help us – Mandarin is a long process, during which we will look and sound stupid for quite a long time – and no one wants that. We would far rather declare that English is the lingua franca (I know!) of the global community to which we now belong, so let’s not waste our time.
And yet, and yet… it’s a shame that we should abandon the idea that it is simply courteous to our hosts and business partners to at least attempt to communicate in their language. How arrogant must we appear when we assume that citizens of the world will speak our language and we are resolutely not interested in theirs?
Cameron has spoken – in English, probably – about the need for children to learn Mandarin to be ready for the ascendancy of a new world power. And there are signs of Latin re-emerging from a fairly lengthy hibernation, as a language not in use, but underlying many languages and therefore teaching the structures and grammar that are largely taken for granted in English, and therefore poorly understood. They saved my bacon in Russian – young English people in my class were baffled by the very idea of nouns having gender. I have one son with a degree in Maths, but also with GCEs in French, Latin and Greek. Now that’s a grounding in languages. I wonder how he is getting on in Japan this week?
We may need someone to make languages cool, a trick that has been recently worked on science, so presumably is not impossible. Either that or we all need a year in a bar in Marseilles, getting total immersion in the language and probably a lot else, like Tony Blair. Or we need an education system flexible enough to do what Spain allows: last year more than 700 Spanish youngsters boarded in British schools for a spell, keeping up with the Spanish curriculum well enough to pass the end of year exams back home, but mostly just soaking up English, a tool for the rest of their lives, in this global community.
Let our 12-year-olds board abroad for a year – they will come back bi-lingual, and it will be a lot faster than endlessly repeating their names and how many brother and sisters they have for the farcical performance which passes for an oral exam in GCSE now. Don’t tell me you can pass the exam – tell me you can communicate in a foreign tongue, with aplomb, with confidence, with panache, and accurately enough to be understood.
Now you’re talking my language.
This article first appeared at

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