Nuala McCann: Languages are the stuff of life – please don't let them die a death

The joke is on languages these days. More than 150 academics wrote to the Guardian recently accusing the exams regulator in England of 'killing off' modern languages by failing to address the excessive difficulty of GCSE and A-level exams

Fewer young people are studying languages as they are perceived as being too difficult as school subjects

THERE were three French cats – un, deux and trios. They went out on a boat. Do you know what happened? Quatre cinq! If you say it out loud with a French accent, you get the joke.

But the joke is on languages these days. More than 150 academics wrote to the Guardian recently accusing the exams regulator in England, Ofqual, of “killing off” modern languages by failing to address the excessive difficulty of GCSE and A-level exams.

They say fewer candidates are taking a language because it is perceived as too difficult.

Ofqual argues that, since the introduction of the English baccalaureate exam, the proportion of children taking a language has risen. But the academics accuse it of killing off languages by harsh marking that sees young people voting with their feet.

I’m a linguist ever since the Eurovision song context made French sexy. Remember “Un banc, un arbre, un boulevard”?

Never forget “Éistigí, éistigí...” the Irish entry from way back when the roads of Donegal had not seen a cent of European money and we rattled over the potholes in the old Marina singing to our hearts’ content as she who drew the short straw bruised her behind on the iron bar in the middle of the back seat.

For French, it helped that we had a brilliant teacher who made the learning so much fun. Occasionally, on a warm summer’s day, we diverted her along les routes de France – for tales about her holidays abroad.

We dreamed of warm days driving along quiet French roads edged on both sides with plane trees before stopping off in the shade of a pavement cafe for a cold lemonade as the locals played boules in a sandy square.

She always brought out an old LP of French carols at Christmas. Give me a brandy and I’ll do you a rousing version of Regardez le bonhomme de neige.

Not even the strict enforcement of “no English” at Irish college could have put us off the Gaelige. Not even the thought of the Fear an Tí allegedly patrolling the garden with a shotgun on the last night – the traditional evening for climbing out the windows after the céilí mór and meeting the boys down the lane – could put us off.

Some classroom punishments stay with you for life. I know the Irish irregular verbs – come, go, give, get, say, do, hear, see, eat, catch/carry and can conjugate them in the present and past tense. I’ll be reciting them on my deathbed after having to write them out 10 times.

French and German and Italian and Irish have taken me far and wide – you can even find common ground in Poland and Hungary and Greece and Romania – you can conduct interviews if you speak just one of these.

And when things are getting tight in a “I don’t like that guy who’s approached us outside Notre Dame and he’s hanging on a like a bucket of skins” kind of way – then conversing in Irish to plan your escape route is almost foolproof.

My French was ‘baby’ French when I worked for the countess in the chateau minding three small children and a sausage dog called Kiwi.

We spent the summer supping the countess’s nettle soup and chasing small French children through long wooden corridors. The umbrellas were guarded by a huge stuffed bear and another glassy-eyed bear stared dolefully at you from his place on the corridor upstairs – he had been stripped to his fur and spread-eagled as wall decoration.

The countess’s chamber and the marquise’s chamber were off limits to us au pairs but we sneaked the odd look.

If my French was baby talk, my German was factory talk – all you could learn at the vibrator in the Hamburg pickling factory where the machines drubbed and throbbed and we dreamed of an easier life working in Mayonnaise... the department.

The German I learned held me in good stead. It lodged somewhere at the back of my head and came pouring out in a volcanic rush after a taxi driver diddled us at some long ago airport.

Our son did not follow us along the traditional language path – but he knows his Java from his C++ .

My sister, in her retirement has taken up Spanish and my husband is loving Italian. On warm days, I sit with friends in the garden, drink and sing “Chansons d’amour... ra ta ta ta ta...”

Ah, the romance languages. Please, examiners, do something... don’t let them die a death.

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