Good moaning: Gorden Kaye as René in “’Allo ’Allo”
It’s well-known that the British are lousy at foreign languages, and that the French are correspondingly proud of their own-witness the recent quarrel in France over legislation permitting the use of English in university courses. Most people assume the two facts are related: the ubiquity of English both encourages the chauvinism of the British and the paranoia of the French. This isn’t the whole story. The British are bad at languages because French is the first foreign language we are taught. In turn, French is the first language in which we are humiliated. The British would become better linguists if we didn’t teach French in schools.
Many of you will be familiar with the deflating holiday scenario: “Ou est la gare?” you inquire, congratulating yourself for your effort and courtesy, only to be met with a reply in English, or worse, feigned ignorance by a Frenchman who pretends not to understand your poor pronunciation. To the British tourist the message is clear: “I speak your language better than you can speak mine, idiot.”
We know the French take their language very seriously. “Vous écorchez la langue!” (“You’re flaying the language!”), as my mother used to be scolded when she was an au pair in France. This is why British people are so shy. We fear being mocked, like the English policeman from the 1980s television comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo! (“Good moaning”). Despite the stereotype of the badly behaved British tourist abroad, the British aren’t fussy about English as spoken by visitors. Have you ever corrected the English of a tourist asking the way to Buckingham Palace, or pretended not to understand him? No, I didn’t think so.
Instead of French, we could teach global languages such as Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish. And why not Italian? The easiest European language to learn is also the idiom of music, food, Dante and Inspector Montalbano.
Unlike the French, other Europeans are delighted when you make an effort. In Canterbury recently I spoke Italian to a man at a food stall (it took me two and a half years to muster the courage). The response wasn’t a shrug or a sneer, but a beam and the valediction, “Grazie! Ciao ciao!” But when I tried to speak French to natives at Le Weekend festival in Sandwich in June, the response was utter indifference.
I don’t blame the French for their attitude, having lost the language war to English. The British can be comparably resentful about the ubiquity of American English. But the British aren’t proud about English threatening other languages, which is why most of us make an effort to speak French when we go to France. What we can’t abide is being belittled when we thought we were doing the right thing.