During the last year I've been trying to learn French. It has been a struggle, as I'm not very good at learning languages (I achieved the lowest mark for Welsh in the history of the University of Wales). The only time I have been able to pick up a language is when I've been immersed in another culture, cut off from English speakers.
I like to tell myself that this is because I am a musical person who learns aurally rather than visually. But it could just be that I'm bone idle and only pick things up when deprived of any alternative. Either way, in an ideal world I would spend a few months working behind the bar at Chez Jacques, interacting with the locals to the point where, months later, Parisians would be appalled by my strong Toulouse accent.
Sadly, work and family committments have meant that it was unlikely that I would ever be pouring a glass of Ricard for Monsieur Bertillon, so I had to find a compromise.
At one point I joined an evening class, but soon discovered that it was actually a dating agency for middle-aged divorcees, masquerading as an educational course. As an alternative, I tried the traditional book and CD route, but it was really hard to assess how well I'd done. What was the answer?
After a long search, I found an internet course that combined traditional teaching methods (books - remember them?) with videos and exercises, where I could record myself and be assessed by native speakers. I could also join a social networking site and make friends with people in Francophone countries. Parfait!
Unfortunately the reality was a little disappointing. The feedback on my exercises amounted to little more than 'tres bien'! One or two brave souls remarked that my accent wasn't all it could be, but practical tips were thin on the ground.
The social networking didn't quite live up to expectations either:
This young woman is from the Ukraine and, as far as I can tell, doesn't speak French. However, she does have a fine collection of commemorative plates celebrating military helicopters. I'm not sure why she's wearing angel wings.
The French course taught me enough to ask a wide range of questions, but sadly left me completely unprepared for the answers. In some ways, knowing a bit of a language is worse than knowing nothing. It was humiliating.
I have decided to take a break from French for a while and try German, which seems to be easier in many ways, as it's more closely related to English. But there are two possible problems. First, I'm a little concerned that my pronunciation strays too easily into war film German: "Achtung! Fünf, vier, drei, zwei, eins...". Second, they have those terrifyingly long words, like betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung. There's no excuse for that.
Perhaps I should just stick to French. But I'd rather speak three foreign languages badly than one reasonably well.
When I was 26 I went to Lanzarote. I didn't speak a word of Spanish and had an unfortunate incident which ended with me being dumped in a lava field at 2.00 in the morning, surrounded by hostile dogs. It was horrible and I know that if I'd been able to speak some Spanish, however badly, things would have been different.
(Fortunately, after wandering across the lava field for an hour, I was rescued by some local lads in a jeep who helped me find my house, driving at ridiculous speeds in the dark, along dirt tracks with terrifying vertiginous slopes. Once we found where I was staying, I invited them in for a drink and as they left, one of them suddenly handed me a huge lump of dope and said, with a grin, "See you in Hell")
After that experience, I learned some Spanish and reached a point where, a few years later in Chile, I was able to book hotel rooms and train tickets in Spanish over the phone. It was exhilirating.
But unless you have a particular affinity with one nation or linguistic group, does it make sense to limit your options? Wouldn't it be better to learn the essential 1000 words in several languages, unless you're one of those nauseating people who are naturally fluent in six languages? In the early part of the 20th century, some people would have had a simple answer: Esperanto.
Sadly, Esperanto is largely forgotten and I wouldn't be surprised if the most popular artificial language of today is Klingon. What a waste of time.
If anyone has any tips for learning a language that don't involve working in a bar for a year, I'd be interested to hear them.