There’s a reason for this you silly cow

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.

55 thoughts on “There’s a reason for this you silly cow”

  1. Yes, this is an excellent point, one which you’ve made before and I’ve repeated often since: which foreign language is a native English speaker supposed to learn and why? For non-native English speakers, both of these questions are answered immediately, and they find English can be used and is useful almost immediately. The first time I found my Russian useful was when I bumped into a crowd of Uzbek hookers in Dubai, until then it was pretty useless (and, if I’m being honest, almost non-existent).

    Also on the subject of languages was another point raised on this her blog in the comments, which I posted about here: far from being arrogant, Brits can understand foreigners speaking English even if their interlocutor is speaking with an accuracy of about 20% (because Brits are used to hearing appalling English all the time). Whereas other nationalities expect you to be speaking their language with a far higher degree of accuracy before they can understand you, or even make the effort to.

  2. It is futile to attempt to ascribe sense to such an article, because its source is pathological: self-hatred, expressed here as a hatred of Britain – specifically England – and all that it once stood for.

    To think that Graham Greene used to write for the organ in question: how times change!

    And doesn’t she realize that the ‘Fog in Channel: Continent Isolated’ headline was just a self-deprecating joke?

  3. I was taught the four basic building blocks of English grammar (naming word, doing word, describing word, describing doing word) in second year of Infant school. And it just has to be those four basics really, none of this intransitional modal pluperfect nonsense.

    I am forever puzzled by reports of “children should be taught grammar” – aren’t they already? I certainly was. But then, more and more, I discover that my bog-standard 1970s/80s state schooling was something nobody else got.

  4. About needing to know your grammar well to learn another language….hhhm. Might work for some folks but it oftentimes has a severe blocking effect.

    That’s not to say that learning the target language’s grammar at some point isn’t useful, but most research shows that only after some reasonable degree of fluency.

    Shadowing is the quickest way to get some degree of fluency.

    Mind you, had some interesting success in getting students to speak their native tongue using the target language grammar. That was very interesting.

  5. I recall sitting in Bremen club listening to a local comedian who had everyone rolling in the aisles. Not understanding the language as well as I should I turned to the local sitting next to me, who replied that it would be a waste of time translating – as Brits and Germans operated on different wavelengths and I still wouldn’t get the joke… Likewise when reading English translations of foreign literature. I may get the general idea, however much of the subtlety and many of the messages it carries pass me by. Of course this may be because I’m a little slow on the uptake.

  6. @ThomasFuller, I suspect self-deprecation is totally undetectable to a self-hater.

    @jgh, yup, same period, I didn’t get much more. The problem with Tim’s idea is that English grammar is pretty simple compared to many other languages. No gender, no cases.

  7. Bloke in Wiltshire

    It’s not selling to us. It’s selling to us, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Carribean, South Africa. Then there’s all those countries that speak English in large numbers: Israel, Netherlands, Scandanavia, Belgium.

    And English is so huge that everyone outside tries to learn it. Which then means you have a common middle language. So, Germans and Czechs in an office of an international company speak English. Standards for international science papers specify English. You read stuff by geeks on the Internet, they all use English.

    It’s also, to echo Tim Newman’s point, a hard choice. And really, why bother. Doing GCSE French does not equip you for translating a website into French or preparing a contract. You pay for a translator. And you need small numbers of them.

  8. All Guardian articles are written to feed the writer’s superiority complex. They have no other purpose.

  9. Whoops – really ought to click on links before commenting.

    Still – Libby Purves would be perfectly at home at the Graun I’m sure…

  10. Of course we are absolutely convinced that our islands are the centre of the world, it is a cartographic fact after-all that that the prime meridian goes through Greenwich and all other nations are either to the east or the west of us.

  11. To be fair, Libby is not really like the certifiable women who write for the Graun. Dan Hannan’s book How We invented Freedom and Why it Matters has a lot about the importance of sharing the same language, i.e. English.

  12. @jgh “I am forever puzzled by reports of “children should be taught grammar” – aren’t they already? I certainly was. But then, more and more, I discover that my bog-standard 1970s/80s state schooling was something nobody else got.”

    I was at school in the late 80s/early 90s and I wasn’t taught any of that. Anything I know of verbs, nouns, etc was picked up since school (and I actually learnt more about grammar in my French and Italian classes than I did in English).

  13. That’s not to say that learning the target language’s grammar at some point isn’t useful, but most research shows that only after some reasonable degree of fluency.

    I found the opposite: if I hadn’t learned the basic grammatical rules of Russian (and later French) while I was doing the oral/aural practice I’d have been lost completely. You need to know what to do with any new word you’ve learned.

  14. I was at school in the late 80s/early 90s and I wasn’t taught any of that. Anything I know of verbs, nouns, etc was picked up since school (and I actually learnt more about grammar in my French and Italian classes than I did in English).

    Same here.

  15. You could speak fluent French and it would be no use whatsoever communicating with a German or Italian (assuming they couldn’t speak French).

    Anyway, if you want to learn another language learn it as a child. It just permeates you, you don’t even have to be ‘taught’ it. After the late teens it’s too late for that.

  16. Rob,

    I’m finding this with German. Which I’m only really learning because I couldn’t even do the basics in Zurich, like asking which platform to go to. My daughter is like ‘oh, German is easy’.

  17. Rob,
    This is one of those things that science proved decades ago and everybody ignores. Learn a another language before age 10, you’re bilingual, after that you just speak a second language.

    Particularly annoying here in Thailand. There’s budget for teaching English in high schools, but not junior schools.

  18. Tim can’t tell the difference between a noun and an adverb in English? And he went to Downside! Almost as bad as Etonian Cameron not being able to translate Magna Carta on the Letterman Show.As I always say: close the public schools, liberate the pupils and let them get a proper education at the local Further Ed .

  19. The Inimitable Steve

    You know, for an insufferably arrogant and provincial nation of ignorant xenophobes sustaining our delusions of grandeur via racist fantasies about our imperialist past and commemorative royal wedding tea towels, we sure are remarkably tolerant of media people talking shit about us.

  20. I have actually pointed this out before. The old style was that, at somewhere like Downside at least, you got your grammar doing Latin and possibly Greek. And if you fell in that gap after Latin was compulsory and before people realised that no grammar at all was being taught then it never was…..

  21. I think there’s a politeness thing here: I speak Chinese (to a conversational level) which helps dealing with Chinese business. I’m doing a lot in greece at the moment, and being able to Kalimera/Kalispera successfully helps a lot ( although the Greek word for yes is “Nay!” and no is “Okay”)

  22. The frogs expect reasonable fluency from any ex pat. When they find it they show a little grudging admiration and switch to subjunctive mode.
    When of course they should have shown pathetic gratitude.

  23. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    I have to echo a lot of the other commentators here: I went to Bash Street Comp in South London in the 1970s/80s and apart from nouns, adverbs etc our only grammar lessons came in French. I had a grade A at Olevel English, went thru 3 years at University and only understood English grammar when I learnt German in my early 20s. I was quite ashamed that many of the basic constructions ( modal verbs, subjunctives and so on ) were completely alien and I had to confess to my teachers that these concepts had never been explained to me at school and would they mind going through them again ?

    As for picking up other languages: well if one lives in Bongobongoland, one must eat and recognise what it says on the packet if there is no picture and what sort of milk is in the fridge. Learning “squirrel suit” and “French, Swedish or Straight” in the local language is also an imperative.

  24. @TimN
    ” Whereas other nationalities expect you to be speaking their language with a far higher degree of accuracy before they can understand you”
    Certainly rings a bell with me. Had it a couple weeks back.
    The basic questioin:
    “How far’s it to Burgos, from here?”
    Blank look.
    “Burgos? Distance?”
    More blank look & “Bugos?”
    Point at road sign. “Burgos”
    “Si. Burgos”

    The difference was pronouncing the “u” closer to the English “u” than the Spanish. Or maybe the relative emphasis on the “r”. Or fuck knows.

    Not saying a reply that he’d never heard of it would have surprised. You can ask a Spaniard for directions to the next street & get a blank look. Even though they’ve been living in the one you’re standing in for 40 years. Hell, you could ask directions to the streert you’re standing in & baffle them. Beats me how they find their way home

  25. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    BiS 🙂

    I’m sure Tim has had similar experiences to me in Czecho. I asked a friend what was the best way to get to Brno, pronouncing it Bruno ( as in the pipe tobacco that used to drive women wild in the adverts). Blank look. Took out map and pointed.
    “Oh ! You mean Brrrrrrrrrrrrnohhhhhh !”
    Each “r” was a separate syllable and the “o” at the end lasted about 3 seconds.

    I actually wanted to go to Jihlava, but thought Brno was easier.

  26. Tim/Anachist: so you went to school after the National Curriculum was instituted, I left school the year before. That probably explains a lot of things about the English (not British) school system.

    I’m not saying that “all” we learned was English noun/verb/adjective/adverb was a bad thing, but that those four basic principles was *more* than people seem to be taught now, and those four basics were sufficient foundation to build any other language learning on. Not “oh dear, we were only taught n/v/a/a”, but “wey hey, we *were* taught n/v/a/a”.

    Starting French and being told “you form verbs like this” you at least knew what a verb was and could then grasp the concepts without the first week of French being English Grammer.

  27. Learning some basic grammar is a good idea, but English grammar in particular will get you only so far with foreign languages. When it comes to anything missing from English grammar, as many things are, you’ll be on your own anyway. Perfective and imperfective aspects, for example, will remain a mystery.

    Being fairly good at grammar, but with a poor ear for foreign languages, I find that the essential step is to learn as many phrases as possible. “My name is Paul”, “Je m’appelle Paul”, “Ich heiße Paul”, “Меня зовут Paul”: each is grammatically different, and you just have to know that’s what they say.

    I went to a museum in Reims a couple of days ago which translated, on a brass plaque, “salle de la capitulation” as “surrender’s room”. I suppose the translator knew that “de” in French marks the genitive, as does the ‘s ending in English…

  28. I’m slightly younger than our esteemed host, and by sheer chance of fate went to a posh school from 8-18, throughout the bulk of the 90s.

    There was absolutely zero, and I mean ZERO teaching of grammar in English. You were supposed to work it out from Latin (compulsory) and French (compulsory).

    Being an engineering type, I need to know the structure of what I’m trying to fit words into, and the whys and wherefores of things like verbs getting kicked to the end of the sentence in German. Doing this means I can speak and write 4 foreign languages, although the one I hardly use any more is getting rusty and polluted by the 2 others that are close to it.

    PS – I want to gently slap with a wet fish people who insist that “the verb comes at the end of the sentence in German”. Not in a single-clause sentence it bloody well doesn’t!!!

  29. I always, but always, learn the following phrases in any language I encounter or need.

    Beer, wine, please, thank you and “I’m terribly sorry I don’t speak language X, do you speak English?”

    Despite my alcohol intake that last has always been the most useful.

  30. We gloss over the fact that the practical truth of this is due to the global dominance of America.

    Well, sort of – here the author is glossing over *why* America speaks English.

    And its because of the past dominance of the UK.

    *That* dominance is what displaced French, kept Spanish down, and set the base language for what became the dominant culture in North America.

    *Then* its the economic development that allowed us to extend our influence across the world that has allowed English to remain dominant.

    And that dominance is relatively recent. If, say, WW2 had turned out different the dominant language would likely have changed after a British loss – so, within the past 3/4 of a century.

    So, even without America, the lingua-fraca of the world would likely have been English well into the 20th century.

  31. BiWilts: My daughter is like ‘oh, German is easy’.
    That’s no reason to copy her English! 🙂

    DBCR: …a proper education at the local Further Ed.
    More drooling, dribbling utopianism from the usual source…

    Tim W: you got your grammar doing Latin and possibly Greek
    Best way to start but I remember English dictation at an earlier stage where one had to underline different parts of speech on different coloured crayons and noun phrases, relative clauses etc. ditto.

  32. I was subjected to Latin, French (which I was actually taught to speak), German (reading knowledge); I later added night-class Italian and Spanish. These have all been so useful that they’ve dwindled away to nearly nowt.

    All that lingers now is (i) an ability to read French, and (ii) a revulsion from the barbaric English pronunciation of Latin.

  33. “I’m terribly sorry I don’t speak language X, do you speak English?”

    “Leider spreche ich kein Deutsch, aber meine Frau spricht ein bisschen.” That’s approximate, but I enunciate it with such a confident flourish that the person I’m addressing is disinclined to believe that I don’t speak the language. What a jolly jape.

  34. Given that you just need a split second of hesitation from a Chugger to get away from them, I find an (almost) perfectly pronounced “Nai, ii red kes Düütsch” / “Nein, ich spreche kein Deutsch” / “Non, je ne parle pas le français” just gives me that split second to break away without actually being actively rude 🙂

  35. No, modern schoolchildren are not taught any English grammar, in case the poor dears find it too difficult.

    If they are presented with any foreign language at all (which often they are not), the teachers then try to teach that without mentioning the grammar either, which at best turns the child into a walking phrase-book, able to parrot but never to invent, infer, or improvise. Useless.

    Years ago I went to a local authority evening class in Italian; most of the “pupils” were at least middle-aged, and we all kept yelling (metaphorically) at the teacher “tell us the grammar! How does that verb decline or conjugate or whatever…”. The response was always the same: “It’s not taught that way any more…”.

    I bet it is, in every other country. And we learned little.

    Hence our linguistic failures are reinforced.

  36. The real reason to learn at least one foreign language isn’t so that you can speak it to furriners, it’s so that you get insight into your own language.

    You should also gain some inkling of how difficult it is to say precisely the same thing in two different languages, if the “thing” is much more complicated or abstract than “How far’s Birmingham?”

  37. Apparently grammar is stifling to creativity. That’s the current orthodoxy.

    To that I say resoultely “Rowlocks”.

    There is nothing more stifling that being limited, as Andrew says, to walking phrase books, unable to express yourself cos you don’t have the skeleton upon which to put the meat.

    It’s like trying to “express yourself” artistically by making big papier maché sculptures while being denied chicken wire.

  38. The current ‘thinking’ (epitomised by Oliver Kamm in The Times) is that there’s no such thing as grammatical rules, it’s just the way that people speak a language. The only way to identify correct usage is by checking to see if that’s what more than 51% of the relevant population do.

    I’ve had lengthy discussions about using ‘of’ as an auxiliary verb (I could of danced all night), but to no avail. It’s “a spelling error”, not cluelessness about grammar, apparently. Note that this isn’t an error that could or would ever be made by a speaker of English as a foreign language, because they have to learn the grammar and therefore realise that the usage is meaningless.

  39. Bloke in North Dorset

    I thought we’d done this subject to death in the past.

    As I said then, English is the world’s 2nd language. As I found in Asia, most of the world learns it not to talk to us but to talk to each other.

    “Still – Libby Purves would be perfectly at home at the Graun I’m sure…”

    She writes some good articles for one the sailing mags.

  40. I’ve had lengthy discussions about using ‘of’ as an auxiliary verb (I could of danced all night), but to no avail. It’s “a spelling error”, not cluelessness about grammar, apparently.

    It’s not a spelling error, the writer wrote “of” and meant “of”. As you say, they are using “of” as an auxiliary verb.

    …the usage is meaningless.
    But it isn’t. We all understand the meaning perfectly.

    Every language evolves through an accumulation of errors. Large parts of modern English, including its paucity of verb and noun inflexions, arose as mistakes. That doesn’t make it wrong now. Perhaps one day “could of” and “would of” will be correct. That wouldn’t be worse, just different.

  41. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Should of, could of… also the inability of people to spell “lose” properly.

    I once had a junior colleague who claimed that he was an excellent programmer. In a converstaion he mixed up “well” and “good”.
    “What’s the difference ? Is it just grammar ?”
    I had to explain, slowly, that it wasn’t “just grammar” but syntax. One made sense, the other didn’t. I didn’t trust him with much programming after that.

  42. Dmitry Orlov came up with an interesting way to teach English called Unspell, it uses a pictogram symbol set rather than the usual character set.

    One of the problems with trying to read and pronounce foreign words is that they use (largely) our character set but pronounce it differently. Ok, we do that too but only for the comedic value of making other English speakers look foolish (Chalmondley… pronounced Chumly)

    If Cymdeithas yr Iaith created an Unspell character set for Gymraeg then a whole lot of monoglot Saesneg speakers could learn the language with ease.

  43. BnliA,

    If you had said that to me I would have poked you in the eye and gobbed in your breakfast.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    In English you can use any word in any order you like, if you can’t find the exact word you want you can just make a new one.
    This is the reason English is the most widely spoken language.

    The program language designer specifies exactly what action each word in that language triggers and the syntax (constructs) of the allowable statements that those words comprise.
    He/She can use any set of symbols to form ‘words’ and any order of ‘words’ to form statements, there is a companion manual that describes these.
    No deviation from the specified words or syntax is allowed.

    This is more akin to foreign languages where the language (words/syntax) is mostly fixed.

    “The boy, he done good’ means exactly the same thing as ‘That boy performed well”, both forms are acceptable as in both cases the listener understands the speakers meaning.

    I’m not interested in a programmers understanding of the vagaries of spoken or written English, I want to see a demonstration of logical and analytical skilz.

  44. I went to Bash Street Comp in South London in the 1970s/80

    I actually went to the genuine Bash Street School, just across the road from the then DC Thomson offices.

    Like others above, our Latin teachers spent the 2nd term of 1st Form teaching us formal grammar (some of use had been taught the basics before). 1st term had been spent with an introduction to Classics in English translation.

  45. SJW, “It’s not a spelling error, the writer wrote “of” and meant “of”. As you say, they are using “of” as an auxiliary verb.

    …the usage is meaningless.
    But it isn’t. We all understand the meaning perfectly.”

    But what about beauty?

  46. “the 2nd term of 1st Form”: I eventually learned what the English mean by “Form”. Then the bastards stopped using it.

    I never did learn what “The Remove” was.

  47. “revulsion from the barbaric English pronunciation of Latin.”

    Christ, yes. At least roll the fucking ‘r’s you silly twats!

  48. Bloke in Costa Rica

    At prep school from 1978–1983, we were rigorously drilled in parts of speech, tenses, moods, voices etc.. Then came figures of speech (wish I still had that list; it had all the favourites like litotes, zeugma, synecdoche, hysteron proteron and all that jazz), style and rhetoric. It was assumed that anything we wrote would be outright barbarous if we didn’t have the bones of the language at our disposal. We also received the standard grammatical instruction in Latin and French.

    Thank God.

    I’m now very fluent—near-bilingual—in Spanish. My French is tolerable (30 years ago it was excellent). German is rusty. I have a smattering of Italian, Dutch and Norwegian. But I learn fast. A great deal of the facility which I have with language acquisition derives from those early English grammar lessons. It gives you a point of reference and, above all, it allows you to refer to the correct terms when you are asking a native speaker how to say something (without which you will not learn). Of course just as with English, speakers of a foreign language may not know the formal grammatical terms either, so it only goes so far. But if you can pick out common modules from a language then your ability to say complex things is vastly increased. For example, the module “conditional perfect + imperfect + pluperfect subjunctive” has pretty much a one-to-one correspondence between English and Spanish. Learn that, and suddenly you can say, “if I’d known you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake”. You can form counterfactuals. And so it goes on.

  49. Bis Vowel sounds. There are 5 in Spanish, aeiou, plus I forget how many diphthongs, ei, ie ue, un, against about 50 in English.

  50. Diogenes: All you guys who think that Latin grammar maps onto English. Be happy in your delusions.

    I’m not convinced that anyone does believe that from what I’ve read here.

    For my own part, I do believe that time spent learning Latin declensions and conjugations do provide a useful rubric for children that have not had any other grammatical training.

    BiCR’s experience of prep school is akin to mine and it’s misguided to think that languages can be absorbed or assimilated similarly to one’s native tongue – unless one has the benefit of having more than one language from the cradle.

  51. I will avail myself of this opportunity to tell a favorite joke.

    Two New Yorkers walking down the block are approached by a man who addresses them in French. The New Yorkers shake their heads. The man switches to German. Same response. Then to Russian. Same response. The man walks away in disgust.

    One New Yorker turns to the other and says, “Did you ever think of learning another language?”

    The other says, “Why? He knew three languages, and it didn’t help him….”

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