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21st September 2011

Je ne comprends pas

Multilingual? No, me neither.

The extent of my language talents came to a grand halt at GCSE French when I miraculously scraped a B. And all I retain from that qualification are random words and terms that make very little sense without context and/or are completely useless; such as aller à la pêche (to go fishing) or how to say “I am 15 years old and have a sister” – case in point.

Up until very recently though I was under the ignorant impression that my inability to speak any languages other than my own wasn’t a problem because “they speak English everywhere don’t they?”

Travelling Eastern Europe with a friend this summer my ignorance was confirmed as, yes, a large majority of people do speak English. In fact it is the third most widely spoken language in the world.

Even when we found ourselves away from the capitals and unexpectedly stranded in a little town on the Czech Republic and Polish border in the middle of nowhere, we still relied on English to communicate. Granted their English wasn’t in any way perfect (and there was a lot of charade type miming involved) but it was better than my Czech will ever be.

Could a Czech tourist with very little grasp of the English language manage that well when visiting the UK? Not a chance.

Unfortunately even when I had taken the time to learn “hello”, “thank you” or “can I have the bill please” in the relevant language my poor pronunciation combined with my very unauthentic Croydon accent seemed to just cause confusion. Resorting back to English made life a lot easier for everyone.

We take for granted how easily we can get by with just English on our sides. And this isn’t necessarily completely our fault. Unless you’re fairly privileged or have the luxury of private education some of us don’t begin to learn a language until secondary school and even then it’s not always compulsory to continue this as a GCSE option.

In comparison many other Europeans learn English from a very young age, either from their parents or in primary school; and this is something they continue through out the whole of their educational lives. So that’s three years of experience in our case vs. up to 14 years plus.

Learning French is becoming more common across primary schools in the UK but is this something we should make compulsory? If other countries can then why can’t we?

It’s not too late for those of you who, like me, are linguistically inept though. There are plenty of language courses on offer across Manchester. Check out what the International Society has to offer, private tuition classes or even learning independently!

Now I’m not saying that I’m going to be learning Hungarian in the near future but turning my “je ne comprends pas” into “je parle un peu français” may be a good place to start.



Lily Howes

Lily Howes

Former Lifestyle Editor at The Mancunion (2011-2012). English Literature and Drama graduate. Originally from Croydon, South London. If you don’t fancy being hounded to sign up for Blind Date then do avoid me at all costs (however if you are interested in taking part then e mail [email protected])

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