Language learning is double Dutch to me

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Ellen's daughter is one step ahead of her parents when it comes to French

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Ellen's daughter is one step ahead of her parents when it comes to French - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

MY husband has decided to learn French.

At breakfast yesterday morning, he marched into the kitchen with another new phrasebook.

“Bonjour mes enfants,” he said, ruffling the children’s heads.

“Good morning Daddy,” replied my daughter curtly.

She has taken an interest in what she describes as his “secret code” and is working on deciphering it.

“Why are you learning French, Daddy?” piped up my son.

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“Je ne sais pas,” he replied.

He doesn’t know. And that’s just it. There is no obvious reason for this new project of his. He is not a regular visitor to the country, we have no relatives there and he has not practised a word of it since he completed his GCSE 18 years ago.

According to a recent study, this means he is pretty much starting from scratch.

Research found that adults remember an average of only seven words from languages studied at school and cannot even recall basic phrases.

In fact, the sum of most school-leavers’ knowledge usually includes “hello” and “goodbye” and may stretch to include “beer” and the Brits-abroad staple of “do you speak English?”

It may be controversial of me to say this, but so what?

It seems that for the most part learning a foreign language has simply become a pleasant form of intellectual self-improvement.

It’s a way to show off on a foreign holiday and reassure the natives that we are more sophisticated than the rest of the tourist tribe.

I hate to point it out to my other half, but any attempt he makes to speak French to a Frenchman will probably be met with a sneer.

In his book Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson describes the look of disgust at the boulangerie when he asks for a loaf of bread, and the disdain with which the shopkeeper slaps onto the counter the dead beaver he has requested.

Les rosbifs were just not cut out to be a nation of foreign language lovers. Anyway, I do wonder if there is actually the need to learn any one particular language unless you are going to live abroad or have a specific professional use for it.

Even then, there are issues making the whole thing a great deal more complex.

The planet’s most common first language is Mandarin Chinese, which has around 850 million speakers. Well obviously, anyone seeking to do business in the massive Chinese market would do well to brush up on their Mandarin, right?

Except they might need a bit of help with those millions of Chinese whose preferred tongue is Cantonese.

And what about the fact that Mandarin is not spoken by anyone who is not Chinese, so it’s useless in that equally significant business powerhouse of India?

If, like my husband, you are just going to pick a language to learn for fun, how do you even choose?

There are almost 7,000 living languages in the world and Europe alone has more than 200.

You can’t possibly learn them all but it makes sense to speak the one that will be of the most use to you, doesn’t it?

Well guess what? You already do.

English unites the world in the way no other language can.

It’s arguably the main reason why our little island has such a disproportionately massive influence.

I imagine it would be true to say that this is also the over-riding factor in explaining why the Brits are a bunch of lazy linguists.

We don’t take the time to learn other languages because we simply do not have to.

Certainly since GCSE languages were made optional in 2004, the number of entries has dropped, with A-level French and German also suffering a hit.

But are we underestimating the importance of language?

Last time I went abroad – to the Austrian Alps – I managed to get by without a word of German.

Our hosts spoke only pidgin English but we managed very well, thanks to the humble pictograph, a system that can surpass language barriers and convey information no matter what country you are in.

This simple communication has come a long way from commonplace signs such as the man or woman icon for “toilet”.

Now we see picture-based directions to lifts, cafeterias, and around transport hubs, as well as images of food available in restaurants and signs showing when to use wi-fi, how to use a bank machine and where to find the nearest bar.

Some linguists are predicting this will be the future of language.

The only problem is that little pictures don’t really help with human interaction.

And this brings me back to my husband’s hobby.

The interesting thing about him learning French is that it has forced me to revisit my own basic repertoire in order to converse.

Another pleasing side-effect is that it allows us to make decisions, have discussions, share secrets, have arguments and swear at each other in the presence of our children. Most liberating.

This method of ironing out difficulties has also been adopted by the leaders of our country.

When multi-lingual Nick Clegg doesn’t want reporters to know what he is saying, he switches to fluent German with his German-born spin doctor, Lena Pietsch.

Similarly, David Cameron often whispers in French to his own adviser, the half-Gallic Gabrielle Bertin.

Both men learnt their foreign languages at school.

But is it true that only children can soak up this type of knowledge, or can you teach an old dog new tricks?

The answer came to me yesterday evening as our children were getting ready for bed.

“Si nous laissez-les observer un peu de TV?” my husband asked. (“Should we let them watch a bit of TV?”)

“Oui,” replied my daughter, grinning as we both looked at her in shock.

It seems that while my husband is still battling with his grammar, our five-year-old is already able to crack his “secret code”.

Zut alors! Pardon my French.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup