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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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.