Life

Nuala McCann: It's a real shame that schools in the north aren't teaching languages

It saddens me to think that young people do not want to learn languages any more. Aren't languages about adventure? But then it saddens me that these same pupils don't have a single school year of living dangerously. It's a rigmarole of testing

Later, on a year in Paris, I learned grown-up French

DON’T they find it sexy any more? A BBC survey suggests a third of all schools in Northern Ireland have stopped offering French, German or Spanish to GCSE in the past five years.

I blame the internet. Why learn verbs when you can watch a cat murder Chopin on the piano?

In ye olden days, there were only three channels on the television and the screen faded to a little white dot by midnight.

The greatest excitement was when the nuns brought us to watch the nuns in The Sound of Music at the local cinema. Remember: “Reverend mother, I have sinned?” Huh, that nun had taken the petrol from the Nazis’ car. We had bigger sins in mind.

French was sexy back then. It was the language of lurve. It was that song Je t’aime by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg that was banned from the radio. We spent hours trying to translate it into English always stumbling over the “Between my kidneys” line. Ours was an innocent take.

But French... think sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, think strolling along the banks of the Seine or hanging out the top half of a window on a train chugging through the Loire Valley while puffing on a Gauloise and chatting up a garcon from Normandy. What’s not to love?

There are sources close to me who swear their French assistante at school was called Chantal Paree.

“Really,” I say.

“Really,” swears said source.

That was a Falls Road girl with a decent French accent and a clever money-making plan, I tell said source.

We never had a glamorous French assistant, but we had an inspirational teacher who gave me a lifelong love of the language. She also brought in records of French carols at Christmas and we sang along cheerily: “Regardez le bonhomme de neige!”

I still do my own version every Noel chez nous. It clears the room in seconds.

I took French, Irish, German, Latin and Italian at school. We spent our time trying to curse in each and every tongue. Zut alors, Gott in himmel, Romani ite domum etc. Still, it gets you about the globe – where, let’s face it, even if you’re very stuck, a Big Mac is a Big Mac in any tongue.

Yet it saddens me to think that young people do not want to learn languages any more. Aren’t languages about adventure? But then it saddens me that these same pupils don’t have a single school year of living dangerously. It’s a rigmarole of testing.

Our year of living dangerously was Lower 6th year at school when A-levels were a good two years away and life was about going to dances, meeting boys and learning French of the kissing kind. We packed a lot into the dark corners of crowded discos.

University was about doing what you liked. I never had a grand plan. The careers teacher who lived in a tiny shoebox of an office tried to steer me. Back then, it was law or medicine. Me? English and French – because I wanted to do what I loved.

Then, there was the glorious grant and the fees paid. What’s not to like?

The French took me to Versailles where I au paired for the daughter of a French countess, and to a chateau near Annecy that was the ancestral home with a huge stuffed bear guarding the umbrella stand and its own chapel.

I came home versed in the French of small children – as in, aller vite faire pipi au petit coin.

Later, on a year in Paris, I learned grown-up French. And despite swearing that I couldn’t remember ein wort of my A-level German, when a taxi driver in Poland diddled us big time, I came out with a stream of angry Deutsch that surprised even me.

Later I taught French and my favourite days were when I brought in Edith Piaf and we all sang along. They particularly loved Milord – a song about a prostitute.

Miss, play the stripper song, they’d cry and, on my final day, we can-canned down the classroom.

It’s an irony that language learning has never been so easy.

There are folks about here who are addicted to Duolingo... we can’t go out, I’m on a run of 400, they shriek, I need to do my Italian.

And you can listen to the news in slow, slow, slow French, German, Italian.

Everything is at our fingertips. Language is music to the ears. So where has the love gone?

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