Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

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Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

World Languages

So I’ve decided to start learning French again.  From the ages of 10 – 15 I was taught the basics of the language in school, and actually somehow managed to get a Grade 1 in Standard Grade French (roughly the equivalent of an ‘A’ GCSE – I think).  I decided to drop the subject when choosing my Highers, because I always found it an uphill struggle and, frankly, wanted as good grades as possible to place me in better stead for university.  I think I regret that decision, now.

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My main reasons are, again, pragmatic.  If I desire to be a journalist, and if I desire to actually find stories about interesting things around the world (rather than: “Local Cake Festival attracts 200 People! 13% increase!!”), then at least being able to speak the basics of a second language will be absolutely essential.  I figured that, with English, French is the language I’d be most likely to encounter around the world.  For fun, I rushed together the map to the left of languages you’d be guaranteed to find around the world.  There’s a European bias, because, for me, these are more realistic to be learned.  I think the combination of English, French and Spanish would be the best choices, as they would open up virtually all of the Americas (I believe Portuguese and Spanish have some mutually intelligibility), Western Europe, Africa, India and Oceania.  Although, of course, armed with these languages you would be very likely to find a speaker of at least one wherever you go.

Because I have a basic understanding of French already, learning it now is easier than it would be from scratch.  My main methods for learning is the highly useful http://www.duolingo.com as well as the news websites, http://www.lemonde.fr and http://www.bbc.co.uk/afrique .  I’m aware that these methods won’t do much to help my speaking of French, which is something I could probably only improve my being in a French-speaking country.

Hopefully this will go well, and not end up abandoned after a few weeks!

‘An historic’

Just.  No.  Never has a more hideous phrase been uttered so frequently and with such certainty.

‘An’ exists to allow a better flow to words beginning with a vowel, or a vowel sound.  So where you’d say ‘a banana’, ‘an banana’ wouldn’t be appropriate, and likewise you’d say ‘an orange’ rather than ‘a orange’.

I’m being patronising.  Everyone knows this rule, right?  So why the insistent, smug, intolerable use of the phrase ‘an historic’?!  I know the type who use it; the political journalist attempting to sound clever and in control of the British language (well, okay, the person I’m trying to be – but with worse knowledge of language!), and failing drastically.  Its use is everywhere.  I’ve even seen it on the BBC!  But it’s wrong, oh so wrong.

Do I really need to go into why?  I think I will have to.  Okay: many words beginning with ‘h’ are pronounced with a silent ‘h’, meaning the word is spoken as if the ‘h’ is not present.  Example: “an hour.”  This is appropriate because the ‘h’ is ignored, and the word is pronounced similarly to ‘our’.  In French most, if not all, words beginning with ‘h’ miss out the ‘h’, which has carried on in part to English but on the whole we pronounce our ‘h’s.  Words like ‘hospital’, ‘horrific’ and, of course, ‘historic’ have begun to be pronounced with the ‘h’.  So for this reason ‘historic’ is not pronounced beginning with a vowel sound and so ‘an’ is unecessary.  It would be like saying: “We’re going to find an hospital,” or: “There’s been an horrific crash!”  Sounds hideous.

I deeply apologise for the condescending nature of this post, but I see this grotesque mutilation of the English Language so often that there isn’t much left my wits can take.  I can imagine one day I’ll snap and begin a mass information campaign, dropping leaflets from planes across the English-speaking world and petitioning parliament to bring back the capital punishment for offenders.  So please, next time you need to say this phrase which is overused anyway, just think.  For my sanity.

Thank you.