Having recently moved overseas to work as an intern, I have been spending some time pondering what have been the most awkward moments of adapting to life in Belgium. Now I have given this some serious thought. No, it's not the terrible driving habits of the locals that result in several near-death experiences when walking to work. It's not the pavements around the European quarter that resemble the 100m hurdles. It's not even the overpriced soft drinks that result in beer being a cheaper option... well that isn't necessary a negative. No, I am talking about my embarrassing lack of knowledge I have when it comes to speaking the French language.
For anyone who isn't familiar with this part of the world - Brussels is officially bilingual with all signs in both French and Dutch - or Flemish if you are speaking to someone rather patriotic. Although in saying that, the vast majority of conversations are had in French in the city - must to the frustration of the Flemish government. That little politics lesson aside, I have been completely embarrassed at my poor skills when attempting to speak French to locals.
I, like many other school pupils sat through many lessons learning all about Jean-Paul's dog that needed to go to the vet or Cecile's plans for her holidays in Nice but little of this seemed to be interesting at the time. I recall many of my classmates asking the teacher why they had to learn French when they never planned to visit the country - which at the time seemed to be a very valid question. The usual response the teacher would usually give would be that we had to learn a foreign language up until the age of 16 at school. I remember learning French to be a rather tedious process - three hourly lessons a week about a subject that seemed as relevant as the Radio 2 playlist to my 14 year old self. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who had similar experiences with current statistics showing only 1 in 10 senior pupils in Scotland now studying a foreign language. The picture is similar across the rest of the UK with an overall 50% drop in A-Level students studying French.
My interest in languages actually started upon watching the highly successful Danish export, Borgen. The show brought something completely different to the UK television scene and was my first encounter of both the Danish language and culture. Although I only briefly started learning how to correctly pronounce smørrebrød, it sparked my interest different languages and societies.
Despite the UK being home to a very diverse population, our eagerness to learn new languages remains poor. I would argue that this stems from the fact that for native English speakers, there is perhaps little real incentive to learn another language. The majority of our culture stems from either our shores or the US and apart from the odd misplaced z there is little difference. I have been met with accusations of snobbery when watching a foreign language film or television show - "why do you want to watch something with subtitles?" is usually the standard response. So for all you French Sherlock fans, you are nothing but culture snobs.
I have witnessed several terrible valiant attempts at the 'Franglais' dialect here in Brussels which is delight to witness - both for the orator and the reaction from the native French speaker. Still, this is better than what some people do and just speak in English without any thought to whether the assistant can actually understand. I hope that a French speaker marches into a Tesco in Slough and asks, "Où les pommes?" during their visit to the UK.
On a more serious note, it is rather embarrassing when I meet people who can speak five languages well and I can just string some basic French together. I will certainly endeavour to learn the language to an acceptable standard while out here. But it's evident other nations have a much better means of teaching their children languages than in the UK and we cannot just hope for people to be able to speak our native tongue when going abroad. In the ever connected world we live in, it's clear that "good moaning" simply doesn't cut the Dijon mustard - must try better people of Britain.