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French in Britain

By Annie Ring

Island Culture: French in Britain

Did you know that ballet is taught in French, even in England?  From the age of three onwards, little girls and boys carefully learn their pliés, their soubresauts and their pas de basquee glissées.  They are required to memorise the vocabulary relevant to the dance and are tested on it in board examinations.

All British secondary school pupils following the national curriculum are required to study French for at least one year at the age of eleven to twelve, during which time they practise the basics such as greetings, numbers, the names of the seasons, months and days, and how to survive typical tourist situations.

There are even numerous French expressions that have entered the English language: déjà vu, double entendre, entente cordiale to name but a few.  Who among us has not made a faux pas or ordered something cordon bleu at the brasserie?

So why do so few Brits deign to speak French when visiting francophone soil?  Is it nervousness or embarrassment?  Have they really forgotten the bare essentials such as bonjour and merci?  Is it the eagerness of our neighbours from over the Channel to practise their grasp of our mother tongue?  Unfortunately, British schools have begun to drop modern foreign languages as obligatory GCSE options, to meet ever tighter timetables and stricter government demands for numeracy, literacy and the sciences.  Languages are no longer a priority, and the status of English as Europe’s lingua franca means that for a while now, Brits have easily entered into international discourse without lifting a finger.

But what do we lose alongside the pure art of learning, in our inability to match our polyglot continental neighbours?  Is Racine really just as good in translation?  No wonder we only listen to English and American contemporary music on the island, since nobody understands the lyrics of equally excellent musicians from the continent and beyond.  Can we rely on our European business partners’ English skills to ensure they understand what we say, and that they express exactly what they mean?  It is impolite, not to mention arrogant, to constantly expect visitors to conform to our linguistic environment.

Nuances are diluted, meaning can be lost in the melee of mediocre, often pigeon English practised by many non-native speakers, and by us when we simplify what we say to ensure they understand.  The poetry of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the intricacies of good old Queen’s English are forgotten in the attempt to interact efficiently, and the classical beauty and balance of the French tongue are left unexplored by busy Brits unwilling to sacrifice their ever reduced free time to discover another language.

Annie Grace Helena Ring
28th April 2006

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