I would like to think I am well-placed to give advice on how to learn a foreign language: marry a foreigner. Yet, even this somewhat radical step does not necessarily bring instant fluency: despite also living in my husband’s country, 20 years on I am still grappling to get the words out. Although many kind people insist that my accent is “charmant” I am very grateful that I do not have to listen to it myself
However, I could give advice on how not to learn a foreign language: spend 12 years reciting sentences such as “la plume de ma tante” (strangely enough, I have never used this phrase outside the classroom). I remember a whole school year of French classes taken up with drawing and cutting out a “valise”. Although it is true I spent most of the time in the corridor outside the classroom due to my disruptive behaviour, I think I can be forgiven: at the age of 6, eager and energetic, I was hungry for knowledge and frustrated by the limited expectations.
Experts may disagree with me, but the fact that my French teachers had names such as Mr Golding and Mrs Bradley surely played a role (I won’t be cruel and start talking about their age – everyone seems very ancient from a child’s view). Even today I still ponder long and hard as to the gender of ‘beurre’ or ‘fleur’: hard to shed the ingrained rule – according to Mr G and Mrs B – that every noun ending in ‘e’ is female.
So that was then and this is now. Has the method – and final result obtained – in learning languages improved? The British department of education states “Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures”: an intelligent and forward-thinking statement – and yet it is no longer compulsory to learn a modern language at school after the age of 11 (and only a cursory amount from 7-11). The British have now become so complacent about being understood throughout the world without opening a phrase book that the motivation for studying another language is dwindling rapidly.
How are languages taught in the French classroom today? Probably a lot better than in Britain and somewhat worse than in Scandinavia. I was amused to discover only the other day that my own children had watched videos of the cartoon “Pingu” whilst at their French primary school. As I had no idea what they were refering to I have just spent 5 minutes (quite enough, thank you) on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fyk1394JF6k. Quite how anyone is supposed to improve their English thanks to Pingu I know not. I can afford to be amused; my children are already bilingual, but this is not so funny for French families who know that their children have to be able to communicate fluently in English.
Many French parents gnash their teeth worrying about what they believe to be the poor level of their children’s English, but on the whole I have been impressed by the ability of the French teenagers I have met to converse with me. Perhaps it is just a question of confidence and the lack of opportunity to put the theoretical learning into practice. “The French school system is built around negativity. There is lot’s of telling pupils off and putting them down and in the end they come out of it believing they are bad at languages; a lot of French people say that themselves” says David Stenning, director of Interface Business Languages in Paris.
The comment made to me by the father of a 15 year old French boy made me think. He was looking for somewhere to send his son at the beginning of the summer and I suggested him going to a British boarding school for the month of June. His father replied that it would be a waste of time for his son to sit in lessons with British children; he said that he knew how easy it was to ‘zone out’ when a conversation was hard to follow and that he himself had only learnt a few words of slang after 3 months working in a bar in England as a student.
It is true that simply going to a foreign country – whether it be to school, university or even to work – is not enough. Anyone can spend years abroad and return with no more than the ability to ask for a loaf of bread or pint of beer. Useful knowledge, of course, but perhaps not totally satisfactory. The key is to get involved and participate, rather than being a silent onlooker. The boy’s father and I had a long and interesting chat and I was able to assure him that a good school in England would encourage pupil participation, aided by the fact that class sizes are small and streamed according to ability. (His son did go to boarding school for the month of June and the stay was, I believe, a great success).
Should a child who goes to a summer school in Britain take (often optional) English language classes? I would say yes, if they are ‘hands on’, fun and interesting but probably not if they are simply a repeat of the experience in the child’s class at home; there is little point in packing a suitcase for this. Taking part in an activity which interests a child – tennis, riding, rowing, sailing, painting, singing: whatever it may be – in which they will be forced (in the most natural way) to converse with intructors and other children in English, would be a much more positive, fruitful exercise. It is a well-known fact that we learn best when we are interested, involved and happy in what we are doing; the effort is a more pleasurable and positive experience.
This is not to ignore the importance of knowing how to write a language fluently and there are some very interesting courses with a more academic emphasis on offer in Britain for the older child. Whilst the tried and tested ‘séjour linguistique’ is still in existence, there is now the possibility for teenagers to learn about Business, Law, Public Speaking, Debating, Team Building – all in English.
So what is the best way to learn a foreign language? Start as young as possible, converse with native speakers, read, watch and listen to everything and anything in that language with passion and enthusiasm: throw yourself into it, without inhibition or hesitation. This is my amateur opinion and nothing new.
Why are my children billingual? Simply because I have always, always, always spoken English to them and my husband French – and – just as importantly – they have always replied in the same language. Why do the Dutch and Scandinavian speak such fantastic English? Because they have to. They are immersed in English from an early age – particularly via the television; it is second nature to them.
Take heart, though, if you feel that you have already left it too late for your child ever to be comfortably fluent in English. My husband spurned English at school in favour of German and Russian. At the grand age of 24 he took himself off to Hastings for a ‘séjour linguistique’ (shades of ‘A Nous les Petites Anglaises’) and, by the time I met him (not in Hastings, I hasten to add) a year or so later (conversing in English, despite my ‘A’ level French) one would be hard pressed to believe he was a relative newcomer to the English language. He can still recite reams of German poetry and sing in Russian, although he never uses either language. Is this because he has what we call a ‘good ear’ or do I have to admit that he is just a touch cleverer than me?