Language is a virus...

· life · which the British seem immune.

I was listening to a report on the Today programme on Radio 4 a couple of days ago about the Swedish Euro referendum, and one thing amazed and embarrassed me. They were doing a vox pop and found at least half a dozen Swedish citizens who spoke virtually flawless English. Now, they may have searched for a while to find enough people who fitted the bill, but even so, I can't help thinking that the situation would be vastly different in Britain. Imagine a French reporter asking questions (in French) on the streets of a large city in Britain--how long do you think it would take before you found 6 people who could understand the question, let alone answer it in French? My guess would be several months, if you didn't count any French tourists you came across. I'm sure that you would end up with audio tape filled with Brits shouting "Do you speak English?"

I know that we often don't need to speak other languages when abroad because so many people speak such good English, but that's a pathetic excuse. I'm as guilty as anyone; like many people, I learnt French for a couple of years at school, and I now know barely enough to get by. Actually, my comprehension is reasonably good[1] in a 'getting the gist' kind of way, but my production is dreadful, and my grammar truly appalling. Before I travelled to New Caledonia, I tried to brush up my schoolgirl French a bit, and was very glad that I did. I ended up camping on the land of a Kanak family who spoke no English, so my French had to improve pretty quickly, or I was facing a very lonely month. I don't think that I did too badly--the family were very kind about ignoring my grammatical attocities and completely invented vocabulary--but my abilities were still put to shame by those Swedes I heard on the radio.

On many occasions, I inadvertently provided cheap entertainment for the family because of my linguistic deficiencies. They were showing me some exotic flowers growing around their home, and asked me if it was possible to grow them in Britain. I started to answer no, you can only grow them in a greenhouse, when I realized that I didn't know the word for greenhouse[2]. I didn't want to rummage around in my French-English dictionary, so I used the completely self-invented phrase, maison de vitrine. Well, it made them laugh--'we can only grow exotic flowers in a house of shop windows'--but they did know what I meant. Learning a language by total immersion is certainly effective, even if it means that you end up with some rather esoteric vocabulary. I learned the French for 'polystyrene' (it turns out that this is rather trivial anyway), 'flip-flop', 'electric ant' and--as a direct consequence of the former--'septicaemia': words I feel that I'm unlikely to need to use on my next trip to Paris.

My point (and I do have one) is that even if you are really bad at languages, any attempt to speak the local language is greatly appreciated by the residents, and you get a much better feel for the place. Some sentiments specific to a culture can only be expressed in their own language.

[1] Thanks, Latin teacher! I can see now that you were absolutely right--Latin is not a dead language, and is extremely useful to learn.

[2] I believe la serre is the correct term if you're ever in the same predicament.