“We’re not very good at speaking languages,” my French friends tell me all the time when I suggest they practise their English on me.
I hear exactly the same from Britons struggling to learn French after years of living in France.
Both nationalities make the same old excuses: “We weren’t taught well at school. It is too difficult for us. The words are impossible to pronounce.”
They cannot both be as bad as each other, can they? Is there no hope for any of us?
‘French are better at languages’
Actually, one team is better than the other. It is an open and shut case and I have proven it countless times.
Put a typical French person in a room with a typical British person – I know there are exceptions to this rule, but they are few – and they will speak English.
Once, I persuaded my friend Marie-Paule – who insists “Je suis nulle en anglais” (“I am hopeless at English”) – to sit down across the tea table from a native English speaker who was temporarily staying in our neck of the woods.
Etiquette would surely demand that we all speak French as we were in France, but Marie-Paule surprised me.
She produced an entire conversation of good English out of nowhere. She still insists that she cannot speak English, but I know differently.
Desire to be heard
What can be learnt from this in order to improve the linguistic performance of the UK?
It has to be admitted that basic English is easier than basic French. There is one way of saying “you were” in English but eight in French. But this is not the whole story.
There are two insights available. One is that communication is a function of the desire to hear and be heard.
I think Marie-Paule, like many people in south west France, treats the means of communication as secondary as long as she can make herself understood.
Even though she is a teacher and likes things to be right, she does not get hung up on technique in an informal conversation. She knows she is making mistakes, but she is willing to persist in spite of them, in the interests of a good conversation.
Exposure to the language
Now, you could argue that if French people (in general) speak better English than British people (in general) speak French, it is because of exposure to the point of saturation.
It is hard for them to avoid English because it is everywhere, from the internet to fast food menus.
If that is true, all it means is that we Brits need to actively go looking for French.
It is not hard to find. You have the perfect 24-hour teacher in your living room. I can tell someone who speaks a foreign language by asking them one question: do you watch Netflix series in the original language?
Sit down and watch telly
If you want to improve your French, all you have to do is flop down on your couch and watch telly.
Watch anything at all on the French channels. Even adverts are mini-language courses. Go on YouTube, disable your ad blocker and repeat the advertising slogans you hear until you cannot get them out of your head.
You do not even have to work hard. Set whatever you are watching on Netflix to French (even if it is with English subtitles).
A good method is to choose a film or series that you have already watched and put it in French. You know the story so you can concentrate on the translation and pronunciation.
The adventures of ’Arry Pot-ter, ’Ermione and Ron at Poudlard School are an excellent place to start.