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.