Why are the English generally so poor at languages? Substandard teaching? Lack of necessity as there will always be someone there who can speak English? Arrogance?
I’m not sure it is in any of those things. I wonder if it’s just a fear of getting things wrong, being made to look a fool in front of our friends and family which holds us back. This lack of confidence in our own ability then means that we don’t concentrate properly in the classroom and subsequently don’t practise what we learn so that our knowledge becomes moribund.
I don’t really speak any languages although I can generally get the gist of what is being said to me in French and Italian. But I used to. I did four language “O” levels (if you count English language!)And I did well. A combination of a good ear and an outstanding teacher meant that my French was confident and extensive.
But then I moved house and it all went a bit pear shaped. My “A” level French teacher was not really inspiring and much of the knowledge that I had had was lost through lack of use.
But far more fatal to my French than the quality of the teaching were my fellow pupils. I had been at an all girls grammar school where no one would pass comment at your accent or laugh if you muddled your irregular verbs. The whole learning experience in a single sex environment is very focussed because there are few distractions.
But it was so very different for me to have boys in my class. Suddenly I was embarrassed about speaking French in front of the five or six lads that were in my “A” level group. I didn’t open my mouth unless I was sure that I was right and even then I squirmed in my seat as I spoke. I have no memory of anyone actually laughing at me but the fact that they were boys and so might was enough to put me off. I don’t know if this is a common problem or something exclusive to me who moved house at the tricky age of 16 but either way it was the death of my French.
I have tried to relearn some language since school. A few years of Italian, attempts to restore my French to something better than ordering food and asking for directions but with little success. I have even been reading a French magazine for the last few months in an attempt to bring my vocabulary into the 21st century. But when it comes to opening my mouth to utter the carefully constructed sentence in my head, I lose my nerve.
I don’t really get embarrassed about stuff now that I am in my 40s. Happy in my own skin, I am now prepared to have a go and not fear the consequences as I once did. But even that new found confidence doesn’t appear to extend as far as conversing in a foreign language.
I am envious of those few friends with linguistic ability and ashamed when my German pal speaks fluently every time we meet, checking her grammar with me as she goes and asking for unknown vocabulary. But I am now resigned to the sad but inevitable conclusion that there is very little chance these days of me ever managing more than I can currently achieve.
I suspect that I shall just have to concentrate on mastering my mother tongue instead. That should keep me busy for a bit.