Monthly Archives: August 2006

English (and) Abroad

I appear to have missed this – Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand has been writing a food column for the Guardian. His last one has a nice aside on the distinction between tourists and “travellers”:

A tourist in his early 20s is explaining to another tourist in her early 20s that he is not a tourist: he is a “traveller”. They have a tourist map spread on the cafe table in front of them, by the English translation of the menu. He is saying that his experience is richer. He looks, smells and acts like a tourist. I don’t get it. Because he stays in a hostel rather than a hotel, is the veritas more veritable? Or is he just a git?

I’m a tourist. I tour the world. I don’t feel I have to excuse myself. The travelling bit is dull. In my mind, that is standing around baggage belts hoping that my case hasn’t been lost again. Of course I’m a bloody tourist. I don’t have the insider’s perspective. I feel like a stranger everywhere I go. I like that perspective.

Quite. Living in Japan gives you a lot of that outsider’s perspective, because as however well you speak the language and understand the culture, you’ll never really belong. This isn’t a gripe, just an observation that even longtime residents have to deal with being treated like a newcomers, with all that entails. However, as I’ve said before, speaking the lingo does make the difference between the outsider’s perspective (which will lose its appeal with long-term residency) and a genuine insight.

This leads into a long essay from today’s edition about another pet annoyance of mine: the British education system’s pisspoor attitude to teaching foreign languages. Agnès Poirier writes from a French perspective on the problem Britain has with teaching languages. This is a really important issue, for a few of the reasons listed in the article. Numbers of pupils taking GCSEs in the subject are already falling, and now universities are dropping languages:

Back in 2002, the University Council of Modern Languages carried out a survey of 30 universities in Britain: three-quarters had substantially or partly cut their modern languages departments. Between 1999 and 2002, 130 university posts in languages had disappeared. In July last year, Oxford Brookes University, one among many others, announced it was dropping its German, Spanish and Italian degree courses. Overall, the languages that have ceased to be taught at some British universities over the past few years have included Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.

This is beyond belief. Of course we don’t need Arabic! It’s not like we have a large strategic investment in the Middle East, and are likely to do so for a long time. This really does make me bloody angry. The government has ended compulsory language studies for 14- to 16-year-olds, and then bleats on about the decline in languages. The thing is, if you’re going to learn a language, the best time to do is when you’re young and you brain is more receptive (this is why I’m jealous of kids brought up in bilingual households). And kids, as I’m sure you’re aware, are not going to do anything like studying unless it’s compulsory. Trust me on this. This is why I’m in favour of Continental-style compulsory language teaching, as is Poirier:

Why can’t languages be taught as compulsory subjects from nursery to A-level, as they are in almost every country in Europe? I didn’t have much say in what languages I learnt back in France. It was obligatoire, no bargaining possible. I had to learn two new langues vivantes (though I could choose which two among a poor choice of five) and one or two langues mortes, Latin and Greek. If I had been given the choice, I probably wouldn’t have chosen any, and right now I would be writing in French and living in Paris. What does a child know?

But, once exposed, the curiosity grew in me. I naturally asked for more and added a third langue vivante at the age of 13. As a result, my horizons have widened considerably. Once you have tasted exotic fruit, you are hungry for more.

The practical or utilitarian reasons are covered well in the article, but it’s the intangibles that she really writes well about:

There is no secret: to really get to see things as others do, and thus to understand them, one must master their language and, in the process, endure hardship and ridicule. Not a job for the faint-hearted. Try it and you’ll be mocked for your accent; you’ll struggle to make yourself heard, let alone be understood; you will stumble on words, fall silent, unable to keep up the pace of the conversation; you’ll suffer a thousand deaths, that of continual misunderstandings, the kind newly arrived immigrants face every day, everywhere in the world.


When somebody refuses to learn someone else’s language on the grounds that it is not useful, they implicitly reject the other’s culture and their way of seeing the world – not a very good start for universal peace and understanding. Not a helpful way to make the world a more complex and richer place to live in either. Rather a recipe for unilateral, over-simplistic dogmas, such as the war on terror.

If this government really wants Britain to have an influential position in the world, make the teaching of languages a priority (along with sorting out the general crappiness of the education system. If we work at it, it’ll make the difference between tourists and confident, independant citizens of the world.


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I am a very lucky man

We were driving back from Dover yesterday afternoon, when our car started veering from one side of the motorway to the other. Dad steered us towards the central reservation, where we spun round on a grassy verge and hit the crash barrier side-on. There was a loud knock, a large jolt, and we were still. It turned out we’d blown a tyre on the road.

Fortunately, everyone in the car was OK. We were calling the emergency services, when some people from the Highways Agency appeared and towed our car to the hard shoulder. They could not have been nicer – they stayed and chatted with us while we waited for a breakdown service to come and take us back to Cambridge. In addition to the burst tyre, the suspension was gone, so the car came back on the back of a flat-bed truck. An odd end to the holiday. Personally though, I’m still very very glad my family and I ended up safe and unharmed. Living to blog the tale, as it were.

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"Carbonisé": a word for all occasions

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, to France for a couple of weeks. We’ll be in a tiny town on the Atlantic coast with no Net connection, so the only medium for keeping up with world affairs is local paper Ouest France, who deal mostly in graphic accounts of horrific road accidents. See you.

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An observation

I was down in London today. Went to see a man about a house, although it didn’t work out. One thing struck me, though. The Underground train seemed so small. I had the odd feeling that the subway trains in Japan are bigger, and I was having a period of readjustment.

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