Parlez vous, er, English?

06/09/2011 23:45 BST | Updated 06/11/2011 10:12 GMT

You have to admire those who speak foreign languages fluently.

By fluently, I don't mean being able to order a steak frites "medium" or ask the way to the traffic lights while turning red with embarrassment. I mean the ability to move from one language to another without thinking about it. I mean watching the lunchtime news in French while picking your teeth with a business card and telling the local notaire his charges are a crime against nature.

Education and class have nothing to do with fluency. There are waiters across Europe who speak English infinitely better than most British university professors speak French, German or Italian.

Contrary to popular belief, linguistic talent isn't the same as having a musical "ear". I knew a journalist who was fluent in four languages but couldn't hold a note to save his life. He could sing the Marseillaise in German and make it sound like Leonard Cohen clearing his throat.

Being good at mathematics doesn't help either. The boys I knew at school who were best at languages were often hopeless at sums. It doesn't add up.

What is clear is that generations of Brits "studied" French at school from the ages of 11-16 without learning anything - and I do mean anything. When they go on holiday in Brittany or the Dordogne, the only words they can utter are "Parlez vous Anglais?". It's as if the years of rattling off lists of irregular verbs and contemplating the difference between cheveux and chevaux resulted, ironically, in a lobotomy of that part of the brain that understood "foreign".

The good news is that it isn't genetic. At the primary school in our local market town, some 15 per cent of the pupils are the sons and daughters of English migrants. Nearly all are bilingual. Four years ago, the three sons of one Brit I know were daunted by the prospect of going to school in France. Now they have to think before they can come up with the mot juste in English.

But most adults - the ones who spent four years learning about Monsieur Thibaut and his wife, who lived, if I remember rightly, off the Place d'Italie in Paris - ignore all those aspects of France that involve speaking the language, which includes everything from understanding the electricity bill to explaining their symptoms to the local doctor.

They couldn't tell you who the Prime Minister is or the differences between the political parties. They will have no idea that the Socialists are trying to choose a candidate to take on Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election (Nicolas who?). They watch Sky television and listen to Radio 4 and do their shopping at supermarkets, where the cashier points at the till screen to indicate the amount owing and sticks their bank cards in a slot.

They socialise exclusively with each other and expect the French to speak English to them. At the same time, they lament the fact that England has been overrun by foreigners speaking gibberish. There are, of course, exceptions. I met one fellow last month in the pub who arrived from Hampshire ten years ago and these days talks with practised ease to the locals. Oddly enough, he's dyslectic. And there are others who take classes and do their best. Most, though, never progress beyond "bonjour" and "ça va?"

I haven't progressed for at least the last three years. It's as if I've made base camp but can't manage the precipitous peaks of linguistic complexity that continue to rear above my head. Every spring when I arrive from New York, I confront the subjunctive; every autumn I retreat, reminding myself to do better next year.

Is it age? Perhaps it is. But that still doesn't explain why most Europeans, including these days the French, can speak our language with relative ease while we are unable to have a decent conversation with our neighbours even after decades of co-existence - or in the case of England and France after two millennia of living cheek by jowl.

One thought occurs. Most Europeans speak their own language plus English. Only tiny minorities of Germans speak French or Spanish. Very few Italians speak German or French. And the French only speak English because they have to to survive when they leave the country, which is not often.

It would seem there is no language that we English-speakers can learn that has anything like the utility of the one we grew up with - so we don't bother. Still ... you have to wonder what all those years of learning French at school added up to. Did we really not understand a word the teacher was saying, or did we just think to ourselves, "if the French have something useful to say, they can bloody well say it in English"?

Vous pourriez le penser. I couldn't possibly comment ... unfortunately.