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Why foreign languages are good for us Brits too

PUBLISHED: 10:18 29 June 2018

It's a great big world out there - and if we can speak a bit of other people's languages, how much happier we will all be.

It's a great big world out there - and if we can speak a bit of other people's languages, how much happier we will all be.

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We're the poorer if we don't take the trouble to learn a foreign language, says Sharon Griffiths

Parlez-vous francais? Or German or Italian?

Probably not. Especially if you’re under thirty. Even Spanish, which is growing more popular and will soon be the most widely-taught foreign language, is still spoken by a pathetically small number of Brits.

What a feeble lot we are.

Speaking another language is fun, gives you a way into another country and makes for interesting encounters.

People go on about how languages are important because it would make a big difference to how we do business abroad, etc etc. But let’s face of it, few of us will get to that level. Bad enough conducting business negotiations in English, let alone in German, Russian or Mandarin…

And, sorry, my life is full enough without reading Proust in the original, whatever purists might say. But learning a language is still worth a go.

The rise in Spanish is probably nothing to do with big business, but all to do with our favourite holiday resorts. Why not? It adds to the fun.

You don’t even have to speak it. Just understanding a bit gives you a head start..

This is a trick I learned from a very early age with my Welsh-speaking cousins. They spoke to me in Welsh, I replied in English and we all understood each other perfectly.

When you hear very small children in Wales switching effortlessly from Welsh to English in mid-sentence, it really emphasis how hopeless the rest of us are.

But I once had a great encounter with an Italian lady in a shop in Monaco. She spoke Italian, I spoke English, the shopkeeper spoke French and we had a marvellous conversation with nobody actually having to speak a word of another language, just understand a bit. As a bonus the shopkeeper recommended an excellent café, well off the tourist trail. Or the old beekeeper I met in Switzerland. He spoke a strange dialect that was a mixture of French and German and something utterly undecipherable. But we managed a decent conversation and he gave me a jar of honey.

It’s all very well saying grandly “But everyone speaks English now,” because they don’t. Not everyone, not everywhere. And how RUDE to expect them to. A little bit of the local language gets you a long way. And is just more fun than Google Translate.

My reasonable German, feeble French and smattering of Italian has led me into all sorts of interesting adventures. Often, people are so amazed that a Brit is attempting their language that they are extraordinarily kind. Wine and kisses in a French bar, wine and endless tapas from a young Barcelona waiter when we asked the names of things not just in Spanish but in Catalan. Language is so much more than just words.

Learning a language is good for the brain too. Various studies have shown that it can delay the onset of dementia, so worth doing even late in life, if only for entirely selfish reasons.

Attempting someone else’s language is a courtesy that is often rewarded with delight and pleasure, a chance to connect with people and understand their world a little more.

Sometimes the rewards are immediate and more tangible – as the three-year-old grand-daughter discovered in France this summer. A lisped “Merci, Madame” at the local restaurant always brought an extra scoop of ice cream.

As incentives to language learning go, it’s a good start.

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