I am learning French. I would try to write that in French except my skills don’t extend that far yet. I learnt French at school and just assumed that I was essentially only a few steps away from bilingual. A few audio lessons, a brush up on verbs, saying ‘Merci’ rather than thank you? You’re pretty much there right? So wrong. God I am bad at it. But where did my mistaken conceptions come from? Why did I assume it was so easy when it is, in fact, head-achingly hard?

Part of my misconception comes from the fact that everyone in books and plays and poems seems to instantly be able to speak languages. In ‘War and Peace’ and Tergenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons’ they flit effortlessly between Russian, French and German. Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ has everyone (except some Americans) casually speaking at least two languages. It seems that every romantic poet was bilingual, hanging out in Italy, Greece and France, and reading Latin and Greek as well.

It’s the same in critical texts. All academics can apparently just automatically speak other languages. Like there was some secret instant language cake handed out at graduation that I missed. At least that is what their books lead you to believe. I was once researching an essay only to find a chapter with the same title!  I got to the conclusion and sure enough final paragraph reiterated the question. And then listed their answer entirely in Latin. Someone before me had scrawled desperately in the margin ‘You Bastard.’ That writer, like so many others, assumes a level of language skills among young people that just doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s wrong of me to suggest that there aren’t plays and books that dwell on language problems. But let’s get something straight—it is both stressful, frustrating and saddening to be bad at a language. So these plays and books tend to carry at least one of these crap components.

Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ – all about people failing to speak each other’s languages – was roundly murdered by GCSE. However, I think even if it hadn’t received this treatment it still doesn’t make a great play. There’s only so many times someone can say ‘I don’t understand you’ (however saucily) or you can hear a joke about someone making a linguistic mistake. It wears fairly thin. Just look at that scene in Henry V (III, iv):


Je te prie, m’enseignez: il faut que j’apprenne a
parler. Comment appelez-vous la main en Anglois?


La main? elle est appelee de hand.


De hand. Et les doigts?


Les doigts? ma foi, j’oublie les doigts; mais je me
souviendrai. Les doigts? je pense qu’ils sont
appeles de fingres; oui, de fingres.


La main, de hand; les doigts, de fingres. Je pense
que je suis le bon ecolier; j’ai gagne deux mots
d’Anglois vitement. Comment appelez-vous les ongles?


Les ongles? nous les appelons de nails.

Prreeee-tttyyy hilarious I think we can all agree. There’s a reason there aren’t more plays, songs or poems about being bad at languages—exactly because it just puts the audience through that laborious process they went through in childhood, and have comfortably repressed. James Bond can speak a thousand languages with no practice. And we prefer it that way. It makes it cool and it might not be as fun to see him hanging out with verb tables. Though it would be a hell of a lot more accurate.

The reality of learning a language can actually be pretty hilarious and addictive. One of my methods is some very old school aural lessons from

the library. A man quietly demands I speak at his will. I find myself urgently shouting in French on the road ‘Je ne comprend pas’ or sometimes, sadly ‘je suis seule’ to the invisible insistent voice. What is strange is that it seems to be sorting me out with a foundation in chat up lines. ‘You have met a young woman, ask her if she would like to have some wine at your house’ usually before I have time to finish my request I am told that ‘she has seen a friend and run off.’ Rejected by an invisible French woman. Bleak.

I spend most of my time imagining the moody films with sparse dialogue that I could create with my current basic skills.

‘Do you want to eat something?’

‘No I don’t want to.’

Cue moody gaze into the heaving ocean. The rest of the film would comprise of lengthy walks and language all in the present tense. A masterpiece.

Another technique I’m using is an app called Duolingo that utterly absorbs me. It’s just me and a green owl teaching me French. And if I get it wrong I lose a life and eventually he cries. It is intense and I’m thinking about it most of the time when I’m not playing it. Why, I’m thinking about it even now. So all in all the techniques are great, it’s just my attitude that was misguided.

What really set me off on the wrong foot was how people responded when I told them that I needed to learn a language. ‘You’ll do it’ they’d say. I misinterpreted this as meaning ‘Sophie, it is Easy, you’ll learn it in a minute,’ as if they were benignly looking down at me worrying over one flash card.

The reality of that comment is different. It’s more like walking up to a door with ‘must be able to run very fast’ written on it. Doubtful of your fitness you turn to your friend, who wearily shrugs and says ‘you’ll do it.’ Unbeknown to you there is a flesh eating monster that will pursue you without mercy as soon as you enter. It doesn’t matter if you can run fast or not right now. Necessity will force you to learn—that’s what your friend means.

And pretty soon I might be facing that necessity. But the monster would be far less fearsome if I’d maintained my languages post GCSE. Studied French, rather than Latin and Old English. Got to love those never-spoken languages. However I’m in a pretty advantaged linguistic situation in contrast to the children that are coming up through secondary school now, for whom foreign languages are no longer compulsory (or even Cambridge English undergraduates, since the compulsory language paper has just been dropped from the tripos.) The logic behind this choice partially stems from how consistently badly everyone was doing in the exams. But linked to this is the strong sense that we just don’t need to learn languages anymore more. That everyone else needs to speak English and jeez it’s their problem if we can’t communicate.

This appears to be a pretty uniquely English perspective. I work with people from all over the world; when I started expressing anxiety about learning a language they could only respond with utter bemusement. Everyone else is on their second or third language, and the concept of having the luxury of only having one seemed absolutely absurd. I tracked down one of the French speakers, and, after pursuing a broken and basic conversation in French, it transpired that French was his third language and English his fourth. The. Shame.

The fact is that just because we’re neglecting languages it doesn’t mean they are magically becoming less relevant. We’re just getting more and more behind the rest of the world. A study at Exeter University found that one of the main things that marked out brighter students from the rest was their inclination to take language modules as part of their courses. Having languages means you can look beyond the UK and, Lordy, as things seem so intent on maintaining a downward trajectory, turning your face abroad might not be so bad a thing.