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On the Loose
On the Loose

Falling into loving languages


The number of pupils in Scotland who sat a Higher exam in French, German or Spanish last year was 6,000; half of what it was 25 years ago. In the same period, the numbers of English pupils taking A level languages has shrunk to a quarter of what it was in the 90s. Across the UK just 32% of young people aged 15 to 30 feel confident reading and writing a language other than their mother tongue. In the EU the average is 89%.

Across our western European neighbours, all pupils study at least one second language right up to their leaving school. In November, Germany’s ambassador met Humza Yousaf to express his country’s alarm at the seemingly unstoppable decline in language learning in Scottish schools, especially German.

Meanwhile, a languages story from Aberdeen has rumbled on and on. The university is proposing to axe single language degrees, citing the current situation as ‘unsustainable’ given the steep decline in student numbers.

For most of us our experience of language learning is but a distant classroom memory; usually dropped as soon as possible to concentrate on the subjects that we are told will be of use to our careers.

I scraped a C pass in French ‘O’ Grade when I was 15. My mum fed me stories of her time in France after the war which nurtured a romantic fantasy about all things French.

But teenage life took over and putting in the work was just too difficult. In my 20’s I spent a summer in the south of France picking peaches. I dug out my schoolboy French and dived in making some alarming faux pas along the way.

Later, courtesy of a Brazilian girlfriend, I had a go at Portuguese. I took evening classes and even paid for a native speaking tutor – but again I didn’t put in the heavy lifting and so got nowhere near my fantasy of fluency. But along the way I had countless colourful and cringeworthy memories that I wouldn’t swap for anything. Now, approaching retirement, it’s back to my first passion of French, thanks to the infectious enthusiasm of my French teacher wife, Catherine.

Finally, for me, the mist has cleared! It’s not about achieving some kind of accredited level. It’s about enjoying the experience of expressing yourself in unfamiliar foreign sounds that slowly, with every repeat experience, become familiar.

The thrill of such encounters surpass all the trauma of classroom memories. And it’s never too late to embark on a language learning adventure in adulthood. Indeed, the benefits for brain function have been scientifically documented: Improved concentration; memory, listening, social skills, and a protection against cognitive decline.

Let’s now hear from Catherine at Language For Fun on the travails of teaching and the potential rewards of speaking another language:

Scottish adolescents are not keen on French. The newly hatched French teacher can find herself wanting to pull the duvet over her head and pull a sickie in the face of the deafening chorus of “what’s the point of doing this – it’s rubbish”, which will inevitably assault her in the classroom.

Occasionally a glimmer of genuine interest, some pleasure in the sound of a particular word, a question about what snails actually taste like, will motivate her to keep going but it’s a job which requires tremendous energy and creativity if you want to make any impact.

Taking a coachload of 12-year-olds to France was what made it worthwhile for me. Witnessing the audible clunk of pennies collectively dropping on that trip to the Normandy farm where a hirsute Frenchman explained to me the intricacies of artisan cider production and I translated for the pupils. “Do you understand him?” they whispered, slack-jawed with shock, finally able to see the reality of what acquiring another language might have to offer – for me, in this particular situation, free booze…

Why then, in adult life, do so many people express regret at having abandoned language learning?

Life experience, particularly travel, opens our minds to all kinds of things we may not have considered during our formative years. And, having the ability to communicate with people in their own tongue, will enliven and deepen our relationship with another country and its culture.

Plus, I can personally testify to the fact that the provincial French, I say nothing of Paris, are frequently so delighted with you for having a go at their language, they’ll chuck in a free aperitif, find an available table in an apparently full restaurant, offer dishes that are off the menu, and tell you the sort of stuff you can do in the environs that only locals know about.

In Rouen last year, left unsupervised in the vicinity of a shoe shop, I had a splendidly entertaining exchange with the chap in charge, and emerged after half an hour with some heavily discounted and totally unnecessary footwear, as well as a tangible spring in my step, born of a French speaking encounter.

It is seriously worthwhile pointing out that you’re Scottish incidentally, la Vieille Alliance is alive and well and remarkably close to the hearts of our Gallic cousins.

So, if you never know anything else
in French - know this - je suis écossais(e) has all the clout of a loyalty card in France. ■


My mum fed me stories of her time in France after the war, nurturing a romantic fantasy about all things French


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