On the risks of speaking a foreign language

All the Anglophones in the house say… “what?”

Katie O’Donnell

According to the British Council, THREE QUARTERS of British adults can’t hold a conversation in a foreign language. In contrast, an estimated 63% of adults across the EU can. There’s no point in trying to deny it, we Brits are notorious for our poor linguistic efforts. For the vast majority of us, it seems our foreign communication skills are limited to talking LOUDLY and S-L-O-W-L-Y, supplemented by a few dramatic hand gestures and a triumphant “gracias”, because we’re so bloody cosmopolitan.

After much reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to foreign languages, us Anglophones have either got it or we don’t. It might be down to evolution; maybe the whole “the rest of the world speaks English” argument has actually hindered 75% of people’s aptitude for languages. Or maybe our own language has been so twisted and altered by endless variations and dialects that 75% of our brains can no longer cope with the concept of a grammatical construction. I’m (obviously) no linguist, so I can’t prove or disprove either of these ever-so-scientific theories. I am, however, a columnist, and seeing as I have been given free rein to share the inner workings of my (linguistically-gifted) mind with the people of St Andrews, I can offer my own opinion.

Rather than concluding that three-quarters of British people are missing a cerebral component, I like to think that the ‘it’ they’re missing is bravery.  After all, speaking a foreign language is a perilous business. Just think of the potential for international incidents if a politician was to make a fatal vocabulary error whilst addressing a foreign nation. Imagine you telling a French village how “excité” you are to visit their local school, you’d end up on the sex offenders register as in fact you just told them how aroused you are by the idea.

Here in Toulouse we haven’t succeeded in avoiding this kind of risk. One of my friends (who shall remain nameless for the sake of international security) gave an entire oral presentation on Vladmir Putin, which she pronounced in her best French accent as “Vladmir Putain”, unintentionally expressing her rather unflattering opinion of Russia’s second-most-infamous export (after vodka of course).

A further incident was narrowly avoided by another friend who wanted to express his disgust at the “political messages” being broadcasted on the metro. Thankfully he never made it to the Tisséo complaints office, as he discovered that what he had heard as “attention de centre-gauche” (beware of the centre-left) was the less controversial “attention, descente à gauche” (descend to the left), rather than an attempt at right-wing propaganda.

From experience, speaking a foreign language is like negotiating a minefield, and not everyone is cut out for it. Maybe for your average Brit, conditioned by years of queuing and saying sorry at every turn, it’s just too adventurous. Their quaintly polite brains put up a barrier to prevent them taking such a big risk. Whatever the case may be, I hope that the rest of the world accepts my excuses for my country’s language skills. We’re not ignorant, we’re just sensitive souls.

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