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Parlez-vous anglais?

French flag

French flag (Photo credit: Nebel)

8 years – that is how many years I learnt French at school. I got an A in my French O’Level. How have I started every conversation on my holiday in France so far? “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame parlez-vous anglais?”

It is utterly pathetic – no other word covers it. Can you imagine a French man or woman approaching me in England and saying “Good morning, do you speak French?” They’d be laughed out of town! So why is it deemed acceptable for me to expect someone to speak a foreign language in their home country just because my grasp of their language is so utterly feeble?

My memory of French speaking at school is confined to passing the dreaded 5 minute French oral component of the French O’Level. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that my 8 years of learning to speak French came down in the final analysis to the moment in my exam when I discovered whether the role play in my French oral would be buying tickets at a railway station or doing the weekly shop in the supermarket.

The emphasis in schools at this time was not on speaking a language but on reading/writing a language. I’ve lost count of the number of fictional French pen pals I wrote letters to over the years in my French lessons. Suffice to say that in my opinion the emphasis was all wrong. What is the point of being able to write a beautiful letter in exquisite French if you can only do an impression of a mute when actually faced with a Frenchman.

It is of course shameful that we, as a nation, have always expected others to speak English and therefore consider language learning as nothing more than a pleasant pastime, nothing to take too seriously as we can always speak English loudly and slowly (and patronisingly) and be understood.

Are things changing nowadays in our schools and more importantly in our national psyche? I can only hope so. My children are exposed to so many more languages than I was in their curriculum – both my sons are currently learning Mandarin – well, this term at least. I really hope that this does not amount to lip service to a variety of languages but results in a generation of children who do not expect English to be spoken by everyone around the world but who feel comfortable expressing themselves in other languages. After all how can you really understand other cultures without some comprehension of the main communication tool – language?

The world is a much smaller place now and the Internet has provided a whole new universal language and also wonderful opportunities for our children to communicate with others across cultural barriers. At school my sons recently skyped with a class of similarly aged children in a Chinese school – what a fantastic communication experience that beats hands down the endless contrived role plays of my language learning experience of the 1980s.

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9 thoughts on “Parlez-vous anglais?

  1. I do think things are changing… although I’m not sure how it will all pan out. I took four years of Latin in high school, which actually has helped me quite a bit with vocab. I took three semesters of Spanish in college and can barely muster, “Hola.” Sad, really.

    But these kids today have lots and lots of opportunities. There are certainly more and more study abroad options, especially at the college level. Then, you are forced to speak the language. For real! Other than that, I’m not sure that you can get a real experience (either back in the 80s or today).

    • I quite agree – nothing beats immersing yourself in a different country. I just feel so ashamed of my inability to communicate in a language I learned for so many years. I did Latin and Greek as my degree so it’s not that I find learning languages hard – it’s all about the expectation that speaking English will always suffice.

  2. I totally agree! My Japanese was appalling when I travelled to Japan after finishing high school. Just appalling. When it came to communicating orally and being understood, it was like I was starting from scratch.
    Another example of how technology is so darned amazing. I can learn how to play the guitar in the comfort of my own bedroom, and your children are skyping a class in China during their Mandarin class… What will they think of next??

    • The mind boggles! Technology should make language learning easier but I think the approach is just all wrong. I like this idea of learning to play the guitar from the internet…perhaps my son would practise his guitar a bit more if there was technological intervention!

  3. I took French in high school and was able to live in Avignon for a school semester. I lived with a host family, and the idea was to immerse myself in the culture by speaking only French, eating new food, traveling by myself, etc. I think by living in the country for a while helped cement that language in my brain. I was never fluent, but I could hold my own, and I think it has to do with actively engaging in the culture rather than sitting at a desk and taking a French test.

    Alas, it has been over 20 years since I lived there, and I don’t think I could hold my own anymore! 🙂 I can’t even imagine what my accent must sound like, lol.

    • How fantastic to live in Avignon – such a beautiful place. I totally agree about actively engaging in the culture rather than sitting at a desk and taking a test. My french is pitiful…and as for my accent…:)

  4. I think there was a brief period in the 90s when the emphasis was on the spoken language, but my daughter’s teacher says it’s now gone back to the written tests again. ‘They’ don’t trust teachers to do accurate/honest assessments…because of the league tables…Don’t get me started…!

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