The English Language Assistant: An Outdated Relic

28/06/2013 13:03 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 10:12 BST

My Grandmother had a French language assistant at school. She speaks of him as an alien; an alien that wore black-and-white striped crewnecks, smelled strongly of garlic and banished melancholy with a well-struck chord on the accordion.

It was wartime England and a class jaunt to the Champs Elysée was out of the question. Unlike her usual teacher - an elderly master who had learned French from a book, like Latin - the French assistant had been able to pronounce 'S'il vous plait' without any unwanted consonants and without the jaunty West Midlands twang.

Back then the role was indispensible. It promoted an otherwise impossible insight into an exotic way of life, provided authentic pronunciation on tap and, at least in my Grandmother's case, spurred more passion for the subject with one smoky, Gauloise-induced 'Bonjour' than a year's worth of irregular verb tables could ever have done.

Seventy years later, however, life is very much different for the average language assistant, particularly those of the English variety. We are living in a world that, for better or for worse, speaks 'our' language to an extent where English no longer has anything to do with England. It is the language spoken in the smoking rooms of international businessmen, regardless of whether or not there are any native speakers present, purely because it is a language they have in common. It's the language that the instruction manual of your flat-pick cupboard will be in. It's the language you can hear underneath the dubbing on European news interviews. The language of Eurovision. Most importantly, however, it is the language of the world's youth. Regardless of his or her mother tongue or home country, the youthful victim of a drugs overdose at a wild party will undoubtedly experience a "bad trip". In English. It would be uncool, maybe even impolite, not to.

Every year, overwhelming numbers of language students at British universities opt to spend the Year Abroad section of their course as a language assistant overseas, often through the British Council. Anyone who suffered a similar demise as my own at the hands of so misguided a decision will likely recall the moment they first walked into the classroom, announced proudly their nationhood, pledged their undying allegiance to Queen and Country and topped off the display with a verse or two of Jerusalem only to be greeted with a sea of tepidly raised eyebrows. "Yes, you're English..." they seemed to be saying. "And what?"

Rude as such a reaction might initially seem, the pupils on the receiving end of our hapless language assistants have every right to not be bothered. They have every right to the question "and what?". In fact, should they leap onto the tables to offer a chorus of "AND WHAT?!!" in ten part harmony, I would argue this to be entirely justified. Whilst it is maybe not the easiest fact to stomach, English is now their language too. They'd been speaking it long before the English language assistant arrived with the pretention that they might be the only hope of anyone south of the Channel being able to pronounce "th". In fact, they already knew how to say antidisestablishmentarianism. Someone off F.R.I.E.N.Ds probably said it once.

To be fair to the modern English language assistant, now cursed by its rather sad inability to bring with it any element of surprise or original insight, it has been assigned a job that was actively designed to be built of nothingness. Working on average no more than twelve hours a week, and often much less, the assistant is laboured with a morbidly 'in-between' profession. With working hours sprawled clumpily across the day, like sporadic hairs on a balding scalp, the job refuses to fall comfortably not only into the part-time or full-time category but into the pocket money or trained professional category. We are faced with something that feels like a no-man's-land between a Saturday shift and a Nine-to-Five; between a Mr Briefcase and a paperboy. Paperwork finds it hard to define the role of the language assistant, therefore it has no role. Health and safety finds it hard to decide what level of responsibility, and what risk, the language assistant can take on. Therefore it has no responsibility.

This would all seem to amount to a particularly odious stalemate in which, just as the pupils' "And What?" is fully within reason, the English language assistant should feel equally at home in replying "And Nothing!"; a strangely liberating exclamation which is usually followed by a string of DVD box set lessons, allowing everyone to play on their new iPhone 5s for the full duration of the hour, or a spiteful worksheet numbering the various different ways to say "boobs" in English.

It must be accepted that role of the English language assistant - alongside that of the door-to-door onion salesman, the lamp lighter and the shoeshine - need to be laid to rest. Maybe, if one was feeling kind, it might be honoured in a museum somewhere.

The more pressing concern is that of the wellbeing of the British languages student. The foreign pupils would no doubt survive a cull of their dear assistants; Facebook'll teach them to conjugate their verbs if they don't know already, and they definitely know at least three words to refer to a lady's bosom.

Yet the British linguist has some catching up to do. Our fatal monolingualism and our timidity with a dictionary have made us a global laughing stock. An assistantship patronises us in placing us comfortably in an English speaking job, and surrounding us with other English assistants as playmates.

For our own sakes, linguists, let's leave the world to its World-English, assistantships to the past, and walk abroad with sacredly renewed purpose. Whatever that might be.