The tongue-tied Britons abroad

Ignorance of one’s native English means other languages and cultures are a closed book, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

May 22, 2014

What I learned at lunch last week shocked me. I was on the edge of a deep, green ravine, where the old fortified French town of Uzerche rises romantically from a crag in a narrow loop of the River Vézère. Denise, the bustling patronne, served piles of chewy gizzards, splattered with vinegar. Crispy confit oozed over unctuous, chaotic mounds of cubed potatoes. I shared the rickety little balcony with an academic - let's call him Henri - who had recently abandoned a research career in oceanography – spent mainly at prestigious US universities – to return to his native town, where he paints livid abstracts in hectic, heavy impasto. On the very balcony on which we sat, 70 years ago, the Gestapo arrested his grandfather, a Resistance hero whom a neighbour betrayed and the Germans shot. Across the charming cobbled street, named rue Gabriel Furnestin in his honour, a vitrine displays photographs of the hero in uniform – not of the Republic, but of the local rugby club. Uzerchois fanaticism for the game is a reminder of the periodic English invasions that have transformed this corner of midmost France: by the Black Prince in the 14th century, sports in the late 19th and English immigrants today – economic refugees, for the most part, fleeing English property prices.


They are poor people, who seem to have stumbled into an overseas adventure without thinking deeply about it

The shock came when the oceanographer described his experiences of teaching French to some of the recent arrivals. Henri is a volunteer in a scheme the local mairie runs with neighbouring communes to help the English integrate. I assumed that the beauties of the Limousin would attract highly cultured bourgeois property-fanciers; and there are some culture vultures who want a second home where art, architecture, music and ecology can be their carrion, while they eat arcana and speak la langue de tout homme civilisé. But most recruits to his classes are not like that. They are poor people, who seem to have stumbled into an overseas adventure without thinking deeply about it. Their ignorance of everything inhibits their enjoyment of life of France. In particular – and this is the really shocking part – their ignorance of their own language prevents them from learning French.

Henri began his courses, he tells me, thinking that he could share the fun of comparative philology with his students: that they would know something, at least, about the entwined histories of English and French; that they would appreciate the difference between the Romance and Germanic elements in English; that they would recognise the kinship of words that are similar or identical in spelling in the two languages, and take an interest in the history of how pronunciation diverged. Henri thought English sojourners would be interested in etymology, even if not knowledgeable about it. He was doubtful whether the youngsters among them would know any Latin, or master the grammatical lexicon of Quintilian, but he thought they would at least recognise a Latinate word as such, and tell an adjective from an adverb, and appreciate that gender is different from sex.

He has been disappointed in all these modest hopes and fragile enthusiasms. At first, he felt frustrated by his failure to get his classes talking fluently or writing accurately, and blamed his own inadequacies. As he talked to his students in English, however, he began to realise that most of them could not express themselves clearly or accurately in any tongue. Obviously, if you cannot speak or write your own language well, you are never going to be able to manage to master another. If you cannot appreciate its beauties and quirks, you are not going to respond to those of unfamiliar tongues.

Henri, in short, was confronting one of the most deplorable deficiencies of English education. As university teachers in the UK know, most young Britons are unequipped to wield their own language with concision, elegance, exactitude or power. Typically, students who get to know enough about their subject to become academics in their turn write badly, perhaps because their incompetence was already beyond remedy when they reached university, or perhaps because lecturers have no time, or stomach, to teach good English. Whenever I have to examine a dissertation, or review a submission for a periodical or a manuscript for a publisher, I activate the track changes facility in my software and take sad pains to pick redundancies, repetition, jargon, clichés, cacophony, ill-chosen words, sloppy phrasing and syntactical or grammatical disfigurements out of the prose. The parallel work I do in the US is no more rewarding or reassuring.

There is no point in trying to communicate anything unless you say or write it well. Readers and hearers will reject or misunderstand whatever tires the ear or revolts the mind. Clarity, concision and accuracy in the use of English should be required of students in every subject, and it should be part of the vocation of all teachers, whatever their discipline, to inspire students with a love of language and pride in wielding it well. One of the great virtues that every language class can inculcate is perfectionism.

“You haven’t given my essay a grade, professor,” I’m told by a student whose writing needs improvement. “How did I do?”

“Was it perfect?” I ask in return. “No? Then there’s your answer.”

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