T’other night I traced the usual twenty-two step route home from the pub after a hard evening’s grass roots research (findings: not even very drunk men will listen to me talking about income tax for very long, a number of people plan to vote for Greenpeace, and far more people plan not to vote at all because It’s All A Conspiracy Against the Working Man) and hied me in a slightly deflated mood to the chippy. Therein I proceeded, for reasons best known to myself at the time, to order a battered sausage and chips in French.
My long-established kebab procurers at this hallowed spot are three Turkish Cypriot brothers and they absorbed my latest eccentricity with their usual aplomb. On further – and slightly halting – enquiry, it turned out they spoke English, Turkish, Greek, French and German. Not all of them necessarily well enough to confide their suspicions about the Conspiracy Afoot Against the Working Man, but more than well enough to cope with a request for battered sausage and make light-hearted chitchat the while. We didn’t get into the specifics of how they had acquired their languages (the issue of coleslaw being more pressing) but I imagine we’re talking a mixture of picking things up on the job when you have lived in more than one country, and a schooling system taking its cue from the fact that you might well want to work in or move to western Europe.
Which got me thinking, as I go about my daily business in modern Lundun, that it is getting more and more incongruous that French is still taught in UK schools as a matter of course, and then after that basic priority has been satisfied, the other European languages are addressed in an ever-widening geographic circle. Surely we no longer need to be fashioning fledgeling diplomats to deal with that bounder Napoleon. Yes, it comes in handy on the Calais fag-run and when going to the Loire with your parents because you can’t afford a holiday for yourself, but those things are not so far as I know a priority at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (unless my People’s infiltration of focus groups has been working exceptionally well of late). France is not the sole default holiday destination choice any more. And, as is now acknowledged in select circles, the French abandoned Calais in disgust years ago and English people have unbeknownst to themselves been running it and forming its entire (purely diurnal) population ever since.
The justification always put forward at school was that French was in common use as a business language all over the world, which I accepted without question, envisaging the many shiny corporate situations in which I and my schoolfellows would chicly strike deals in French in glass-sided buildings before laughing coquettishly and going out for a cafe creme and a cognac-flavoured eclair (though, oddly, never once needing to ask how to get to the beach). But it strikes me now as a feeble piece of reasoning in the context of polyglot Britain – why are we preparing people for putative ill-defined business transactions in French-speaking nations when I can’t even say hello to my kebab man in his mother tongue? It is actually bloody odd that we know how to say “thank you” in French, Italian, Spanish and German but not in Somalian. How many times in your life are you going to be called upon to thank an Italian who will literally never have heard the words “thank you” before?
This is, admittedly, more an urban thing at the moment, but the marked absurdity can only spread across the country with time. The language I hear most often hereabouts is Polish – or at least I think it is because it sounds a bit like I reckon Polish should sound based on my extensive internal reference library of terrible old war films, but frankly it might just as easily be Lithuanian, Moldavian, Romanian or Martian. The Polish population of Haringey went up by 3000 in 2005/06 alone – that’s 3000 people who are basically stuck with talking to each other until they’ve watched enough Saturday night tv to pick up workable English (and how frightening is that?) The other major first languages abroad in the magic borough are Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Somalian. In not a single one of those do I know any of the words for “Hello”, “can”, “I”, “have”, “a”, “battered”, “sausage” or “please”. I don’t even know whether you could frame such a sentence. Maybe it is not possible to form questions in Arabic, and requests have to be made as a statement with a very polite expression. Maybe there is no first person pronoun in Somalian, and a battered sausage has to be ordered “for one’s stomach”. I really don’t have the least idea.
The focus on linguistic exchange is, of course, all the other way round. I have no reason to doubt the generally accepted proposition that integration is only successful where a real attempt is made on the part of the immigrant to learn the host language. But I don’t know why some reverse flow shouldn’t be a good thing – it would assist in breaking down prejudices, make people feel welcome, surely increase the speed at which the incomers pick up English. The Bishop of London went so far as to call for (why is it always “call for”? As if people go to the top of a very tall tower, blow a trumpet and begin “I DEMAND…”) a GCSE in Somali a few weeks ago, which I think is maybe pushing it in a curriculum where language teaching hours are shrinking – but why is that anyway, if not because the benefits are no longer as obvious as they used to be? By treating language as a practical tool for daily life rather than a potential corridor to a shadowy future career you don’t remember signing up for, one might even bolster the quality and vitality of linguistic schooling. Which, as anyone else who is young enough to remember Tricolore text books will know, is not in good nick in blighty. The only reason I can speak French well enough to order a battered sausage is because I chattered in a bastardised version of it every day with someone I lived with for a year. I don’t know quite how the decision was made to adopt a sort of whimsical pidgeon French as our private language, but it was certainly a policy which came dramatically unstuck when we went on holiday to Bruges, and a smattering of Somalian wouldn’t have gone amiss at all.