Sprechen Sie English, Por Favor?

Having just returned from a brief sojourn in Spain, it has struck me once again how useless we English are at learning (or even attempting) the languages of our European neighbours.

When I booked the holiday a month ago I didn’t know one single word of Spanish but having managed to scrape through a French “O” Level and German Business Language course while working for Siemens, I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up a rudimentary grasp of the language from tapes or phrase books before my departure date. How wrong I was.

The first problem was the lack of adequate learning resources. After trawling the largest bookstores in London, I was left with a lackluster choice of some very expensive CDs or one phrase book and two cassette tapes(Not all of us have personal CD players yet, so I chose the cheaper option).

However, after struggling through the first tape with a very arrogant instructor teaching odd phrases such as “it is possible for me” and “it is not important for you” I had not learned anything useful (i.e. Hello, How are you? Where is my room? I would like to eat / buy…). The instructor also had an annoying habit of interrupting the ‘students’ repeating his phrases on the tape and correcting their pronunciation, which merely interrupted and confused the learning process.

Deciding instead to stick to the phrase books, I managed to find a few useful phrases such as “Donde esta?” (where is) but no guidance towards understanding any potential answers (e.g. Left, Right, Up, Down, In front of you)!

Whilst most of the other travellers on my wonderful ‘bargain break’ package tour wanted to implore me not to bother and assure me that “everyone speaks English”, that was not quite the case. Certainly the hotel receptionists, souvenir vendors and most (but not all) people who wanted to make a buck did speak some English, the chambermaids didn’t speak a word and after a few misunderstood mimes I had to look up “yo necesito los papiers hygienicos, por favor” (more bog roll please!).

The other thing that annoyed many of the rest of the British lumpenproletariat was that many of the shops and bars were German run or influenced – this, of course, being because many Germans have taken Spain to be their favourite holiday resort, the same as us Brits. (How dare they!)

This did not bother me, still having a smattering of German from my business lingo course (although the phrase “he is not here, he is in a meeting” is somewhat limited on holiday).

In England, most of us learn French for about 4 years and German (if we choose a second language for our GCSEs) for 2 years. Although, frankly, when I left school at 16 with the requisite exam passes, I knew the same limited amount of both languages and don’t see that starting French at the age of 12 had been beneficial due to the way they were taught (slow, with fun and games for the first two years of French; rushed and crammed with German for the sole purposes of the exam).

So when David Blunkett (Education Secretary) or Chris Woodhead (Chief Inspector of Schools) is next looking at the National Curriculum, how about an overdue look at the way languages are taught in this country? How about starting foreign languages much earlier, at about eight or nine?

What about different schools in each area teaching DIFFERENT languages – not all French? One school could specialize in Spanish, another in French, the third in German and a fourth in Italian.

Thus, instead of educating the British lumpenproletariat all to speak a bit of French (badly) some of the pupils from each school would actually be linguists in at least one foreign language. What do you think Mr Woodhead? Or would that prevent gullible fifth formers from performing sexual favours for randy headteachers? Actually making them do some work for a change?