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So what if the French are rubbish at speaking English? Unlike us, at least they try

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 06/11/2018 Anthony Peregrine
a person holding a glass of wine: Parlez vous franglais? © istock Parlez vous franglais?

The place was a restaurant terrace in Sarlat, in the Dordogne. The time was dinner. I was dining alone. A couple of tables away, the only other customers were an English couple. He looked like the sort of red-faced fellow you avoid in golf club bars.

He had already sent his steak back because, instead of medium, it “was bloody rare. Needs more cooking. More cooking.” The waitress, who was perhaps 18 and conceivably on her first night working in the place, was already tetanised.

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“And, Miss, we actually need steak knives,” said the chap. “We have steaks. We need steak knives. Knives for cutting steak. Knives de steak.” The translation barely helped. His tone was of one impatient with a dim basset hound.

The waitress – a slip of a young woman who had presumably never before met Colonel Blimp head on – was crumbling. If she had any English, it had deserted her. By chance, my table was laid with steak knives. I got up and passed them over.

an old brick building: Sarlat: scene of the Colonel Blimp crime © istock Sarlat: scene of the Colonel Blimp crime

“Thank God,” said Blimp. “Someone who understands a normal language.”

And we call the French arrogant.

Apart from indicating that middle class British tourists are not invariably as civilised as we might wish, the incident appears also to support this weekend’s revelation that the French are pretty rubbish at English.

The worst in western Europe, says a survey – which clearly never got as far as Gateshead or Rawtenstall. (The best at English-as-a-foreign-language, incidentally, are the Swedes – not altogether surprising, given that the survey in question, the English Proficiency Index, was undertaken by a Swedish language holiday and teaching company.)

© Getty

But, and this is the point, however bad the French might be at English, they are infinitely less rubbish than are the British at French – or, indeed, at any other language on God’s good earth. I don’t need a survey to prove this. I just know it.

Over many years, I have never come across anyone in any branch of the British service industries who could answer a simple question in French. (I mean, apart from French people working in Britain.) And, Lord knows, I’ve tried – either myself or by sending my French wife into battle. Big city tourist offices? Information desks at key visitor sites? Hotels? Restaurants? Nope, not a single French word.

And pubs? Oh dearie me. On entering a bar in Soho – and because, at my age, I have limited opportunities for amusement - I ordered: "Un demi-pression, s'il vous plaît." The bar fell silent. People stared. (We were, may I repeat, in our nation’s capital, not Solihull or the Outer Hebrides.) And the barman cried, to some approval: "Oh no, no, no. We don't do foreign here.”

© Getty

By contrast, and over almost half a lifetime in France, I have rarely encountered any French person working with tourists – waiters, receptionists, tourist office staff – who couldn’t manage some English, at least enough to serve a beer or hand over a town map.

Even in small and remote towns, people will try, and be embarrassed that they can’t do better. Compare and contrast with a weird sort of British pride in being unable to say: “I don’t speak French” in anything but English.

Granted, English is now the world language. Some people of all nations speak it – so it’s inclusive and opens things up whereas other languages (Bulgarian, Swedish, um, French) close things down around relatively few speakers. But that, I’d say, scarcely justifies the British contention that mastering a foreign language is a cruel and unnatural skill, way beyond native British talents and traditions.

It is the same contention which informs those who, having got their mouths round: “Bonjour”, consider themselves both dashing and worthy of acclaim. (Imagine being unashamed that you couldn’t manage arithmetic, and then expecting praise for getting two-plus-seven right.)

© Getty

Linguistic incompetence excludes you from culture and much else in countries you visit, as I realise every time I go to Germany, Italy or anywhere else where they don’t speak mainly English or French.

Thus, I end up in some godforsaken archeological museum when I’m really after a soccer match. And, contrary to popular supposition, you really can’t get by with sign language. You think you’re explaining the pros and cons of Brexit, they think you’re inviting them back to your place in Reading for a fortnight. It always ends in tears.

But it’s not only that. It’s also a question of good manners. We expect people arriving in Britain to speak English. Otherwise we get sniffy. (“They come over here, can’t even speak our, etc, etc.”) And then when we go over there, we expect them to speak English too. And, very often indeed, they do. They extend us this courtesy. It seems only polite to try to reciprocate. It’s really not beyond us.

Should you wish to try, please be informed that “steak knives” are “couteaux de steak”. Given a couple of weeks of evening classes, even Blimp might have managed that. And one young French lady would have had a very much less stressful evening.

Related: The most annoying things about the English language, from people who are learning it [Business Insider]

  
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