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Never mind the Brexiteurs: why it’s time to learn French | Phil Daoust

Putain de bordel de merde. Ces rosbifs sont cons comme des bites. Pardon my French, but we must make the most of the obscenities while we can. English children are increasingly unwilling to learn the language of Molière and MC Solaar, according to the British Council, which reports that within a few years Spanish will overtake it as the most-studied foreign language. At A-level, takeup has already fallen to 8,300, from 21,300 in 1997, while Spanish has climbed to 7,600.

Laziness seems to have a lot to do with it. As Vicky Gough, a schools adviser at the British Council, put it, “There is a perception of Spanish being easier to pick up than other languages, which may account in part for its popularity.” Which, one might say, confirms another perception: that the kids of today want everything handed to them on a plate, from chauffeur service to and from school, to first-class university degrees. When I was a boy, we had to walk to Dotheboys Hall in all weathers because it was “character-forming”, and even clever kids were happy with a 2ii.

French is undeniably hard work, with its irregular verbs (je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes …), its convoluted numbering system (vingt et un, soixante-treize, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf …) and its unnecessary sexual differentation. In no sane world is a table (une table) feminine and a desk (un bureau) masculine – presumably on the basis that one has lovely legs and the other doesn’t – the plural of un oeil (an eye) les yeux, or something that is white and masculine blanc and something that is white and feminine blanche. Come to think of it, in no sane world is something that is white, singular and masculine blanc, something that is white, singular and feminine blanche, something that is white, plural and masculine blancs, something that is white, plural and feminine blanches and something that is white, plural and a mix of genders blancs again.

Spanish has its own absurdities, of course, and there’s no definitive ranking to tell us which language is tougher to master. But even if it is French, that’s no reason to avoid it. As Nietzsche put it, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” He said it in German, of course, but since that’s now even less popular than French, no one would understand that.

If an easy life was all that mattered, we wouldn’t wrestle with cryptic crosswords or study medicine. Stephen Hawking would not have written A Brief History of Time, and so many less brilliant people would not have at least tried to read it. Exercising our minds makes us both smarter and more useful to society. And, at the risk of stating the obvious – and ignoring Ireland, like a Brexiteer – France is our nearest neighbour, our most intimate frenemy. We once ruled much of it; and it (or at least a certain Norman) once ruled much of us.

Winston Churchill with Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 1944.

Winston Churchill with Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 1944. Photograph: Hulton Getty

After centuries at each other’s throats, we fought side by side in two world wars. Our destinies are so entwined that in 1940 Churchill and De Gaulle attempted to merge the countries in a “Franco-British Union”. And yet both nations can be resolutely monoglot, sneering at those who don’t speak their language as the Greeks and Romans once mocked the stammering bar-bar-barbarians. Though born and raised in Britain, I have fluent French and spent most of the 00s in deepest, darkest Lorraine. I still remember how rude officials could be to those qui ne parlaient pas français, while being unfailing polite to moi.

The more Britons make the effort to learn French, the richer both cultures will be. Spain is now more popular as a holiday destination (another reason for the rise of its language, according to the British Council) but the stakes are lower there, since all that most of us dream of doing is ordering some albóndigas or a bottle of rioja without needing to point at a menu.

Like it or not, we are more invested in France, which has come to epitomise culture, good taste, style and savoir-vivre – even though that reverence is the product of ignorance as much as familiarity. Only when we understand French can we appreciate how vacuous their media is, or how unfunny their comedy. Only when we speak French can we set them straight about being the world’s greatest cooks and lovers, or about their bloody awful taste in rock music. And, to give them their due, only when we know their language inside out can we appreciate how beautiful their literature can be, or how moving their song lyrics.

“Je t’ai dans la peau,” Edith Piaf once sang. “Y a rien à faire. Obstinément, tu es là …” In other words, I’ve got you under my skin. Isn’t that how most of us still feel about this nation of constantly striking, camembert-smelling, baguette-obsessed peacocks?

Phil Daoust is a Guardian writer and editor


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