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Whilst working or travelling abroad, I have often squirmed with embarrassment to hear other English people demand something, usually a beer, in a loud voice as though talking to an idiot, somehow assuming that the louder they spoke, the easier it would be for the other person to understand them. When in doubt, shout!
I am fortunate, English is my mother tongue, I studied French for my degree which involved spending a year at a French University, and I spent a summer working in Spain. But even I am reluctant these days to actually say anything in French or Spanish to a real French person or Spaniard. I can read these two languages, I can understand them, but 20 years on, I am incredibly rusty in actually speaking them, and my reluctance in speaking them obviously perpetuates this vicious circle.

The trouble with the English is that we are easily embarrassed. If we canít do something well, we tend to prefer not to do it at all. We donít want to show ourselves up!

From my experience, the earlier a child begins to learn a second language, the easier it is to grasp. As we get older, we become too bound up in grammar and syntax. A child learns a second language in a similar way to the method he used to learn his first language: by hearing it and by trying it out until he is understood. An adult fears trying something out, getting it wrong, and then being laughed at.

I was lucky. When I was at primary school, we had French lessons. They were very simple and, if I remember correctly, simply involved repeating phrases. I could not have recited all the verb forms, but I could tell you my name in French, and ask how you were. My niece lived in Spain from the age of 2 to 6, and went to a Spanish nursery school. When she returned to England, she had the fluency of a 6 year old in English, Spanish, and Catalan. She could easily translate between all three. It's interesting that the children of immigrants often end up translating for their parents.

We cannot assume everyone will be able to speak English whatever part of the globe we visit. They might well be able to do so. But it is only courtesy to assume they cannot, and at least attempt to address them in their own language. Even if your knowledge of the language is rudimentary, you will have a better reaction from someone if you at least try. They will appreciate your attempt.


children looking at a globe
Britain currently lags behind the rest of Europe with regard to foreign languages. Few English people, when meeting a French or German speaker in England, would be able to converse with them in their language. In fact, the English often seem arrogant because they assume that others will be able to speak English to them, even if they are visiting a remote village in the south of Italy.
Most Europeans, other than Britons, speak at least one language other than their native tongue. By the age of eight, children in Germany, Spain, and France have all begun to learn English, which is compulsory until they leave school. In Denmark, children learn English from the age of 12 to 18, and in The Netherlands from 10 to 18. In Italy, children must learn a foreign language from 8 to 18, and around 75% choose English.

England is the only country in the European Union that does not have compulsory foreign language lessons in primary schools. Some private schools provide lessons, and some state schools offer lessons as an extra curriculum activity, usually in the form of language clubs. However, language lessons have not been widely available in English primary schools for over 20 years.

It has been announced recently that language lessons must be available in primary schools in England for children who want them. However, it may take up to ten years to complete this plan.

Copyright and Permission: Karen Starr 2002

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