It is hard not to connect British linguistic reluctance with our endemic national weakness: island arrogance and a half-conscious memory of the days when we were an imperial force. It creates a pleasing but dangerous conviction that our islands are the natural centre of the world, and that we speak a uniquely rich and wonderful tongue which absorbed the best of all others to make something special (there’s a scintilla of truth in that, but no call to be smug). The result is a vague feeling that English is the natural default language, the “normal” one. So if the world wants to speak with us, it will do so in English. We gloss over the fact that the practical truth of this is due to the global dominance of America.
I caricature: but that attitude hangs around like a Channel fog. It’s in tourists assuming that the locals will parlano inglese or habla inglés because they need to sell us stuff, in gap-year interrailers relying trustfully on smartphone translation apps, and in businesspeople who attempt a few halting words of German (possibly in Oslo or Amsterdam, but what the hell) and then relax when their client replies in smoothly excellent English.
Because largely, they do.
And forgive me for this but I am a reasonable case in point. My French is that traditional schoolboy French. I’ve deployed it twice in the past three years. Once to order a sandwich, once to buy a map. And I got it right both times – I think getting the French for “Have you a map?” right at 6 am in some rural French town deserves a medal in fact, given that I really don’t speak the language. My Portuguese takes me shopping as that’s what I need it for. My Czech similarly. My Italian is atrocious but I once found myself with the Czech Radio correspondent to Italy, who had no English, and we chatted amiably for 20 minutes in that Florentine.
In terms of lessons I have none except for that O Level French. And then there’s the biggie – when in Russia it was necvessary to learn Russian well enough to be able to conduct business in that language. So, I did.
But always this has been just by listening to people and repeating – the way we naturally learn languages. Yes, it’s entirely true that with one Romance language the next beomes easier – some words change, lavoro in Italian becomes trabalho in Portugee but a lot of it is just accent. Same with slavic ones, pajalista becomes prosim, some others change properly, krasne becomes chervenyi.
But the real point here is that there’s no point to doing the intense mental work to learn another language unless you need to. Not if your native language is English that is. Even that’s not quite exactly true – most of us have two Englishes, the local and something akin to BBC, we can certainly all understand BBC and near all speakers move closer to it when addressing someone outside that local accent group. (One party trick is to introduce foreigners to a proper Bath accent, well weighted towards the Twerton end of it, at which point even the most fluent English speakers go rather quiet.)
At which point the actual advice that I would give a native English speaker about foreign languages. Learn the damn grammar of your own language first. I don’t – I struggle mightily with the difference between a noun and an adverb let alone anything more complex. I write just from experience, hmm, yes, that looks about right. I know the language, obviously, but I don’t know the structure of it. And it’s that structure which is going to aid you in learning other languages much more than anything else.
To begin with, passing through a place, you can just pick up 20 or 50 or 100 words, that’s just not tough. And if you decide that you’re going to stay in a place then yes, obviously, you’ll want to learn that one language better. But the first thing all and any books are going to do is start with the grammar. This bit of the sentence will change as this bit does and this ending means this tense and that that and so on. And if you don’t already have that mental stucture in place in your own language then you’ll just never, never, get it.
That is, the best preparation for learning any other language is to know English grammar. Because, believe me, the first thing all the books do is assume that you do know grammar as they then try to teach you Portugee, Czech or Russian grammar.