The first time anyone seriously tried to teach me a foreign language was when I was about 8-9 years old. Modern teaching methods suggest far earlier – from the age of 4 if people are to pick up a second or third language. Anyway, we had French lessons for about 1 year, which mostly comprised of singing “sur le pon, d’avignon” and deciding what sex a table was (something that still confuses me to this day)
Transferring to senior school we then learned German for three years from a now infamous book called Sprecht Mal Deutch (Speak Good German)
Infamous because it was mostly involved with the adventures of two German children called Hans and Lieselotte and was full of phrases that could only be described as pointless.
For instance (and please forgive my spelling):
Das ist eine Katze – that is a cat (well, I guess that you never know when you might be walking down the streets of Munchen Gladbach and need to point out to someone what a cat is)
Ist de Katze gruBe? – is the Cat green? (highly unlikely one would have thought)
Nein, de Katze ist nicht gruBe – no the Cat isn’t green (well, that’s established then)
Ist de Katze tot? – is the cat dead?
Clearly, someone on the German/English tourist board thought that one day it would prove vital to inter-continental relations to be able to discuss dead cats in the language of ones choice.
Hanz & Lieselotte, meanwhile, would have a range of adventures, often involving shopping, travelling or annoying old Uncle Heimlich, all themed to teach kids something of the language in "real" situations.
Now the thing is that, until quite recently, I thought that Sprecht Mal Deutch was an oddity in a world of otherwise sane phrase books. Then my friend went to Italy.
Before going to Italy he bought a phrase book and started reading me some of the choicest phrases – which included the Italian for how to say “No, I don’t want to buy any class A drugs” and “Can you show me the way to the nearest detox clinic?”
Clearly things had moved on from the warm and fluffy days of Hans and Lieselotte.
So I checked an old Spanish phrasebook to see if these hyper-useful phrases were included in every language and found: cuidado, con la medusas – look out, there are jellyfish
Useless as the above phrase may be when shopping for Prada in the streets of Milan it is still 1000 miles more effective as communication as compared to the typical English approach of “If you speak loud and slow enough, you will be understood”
The truth is that, in our pride and we-had-an-empire-once-attitude, we expect everyone else to go and learn our language and thus save us the bother. Having said this the old adage that if you don’t use it you lose it is completely true – I did a refresher course in German about 6 years ago, but today would be hard pushed to do more than ask when the next train is (and not understand the answer). Still, by learning another persons language we learn their culture and shrink the gaps between us and them – and surely that can never be a bad thing?