On my travels I meet a stream of intrepid Brits in everything except learning foreign languages. They trek the Himalayas in thunder storms and raft the Zambezi with the crocodiles and yet, no matter how extrovert and gregarious they are by nature, one obstacle seems always to obstruct their path – the language barrier. Lame excuses such as ‘my memory is terrible’ or ‘I just don’t have the ear’, crop up time and time again. To some extent we can blame our colonial past. Rather than adapting to foreign cultures we have forced them to adapt to ours, and suffered the consequences: a national apathy towards the learning of foreign languages.
Yet it is never the apathetic who suffer from phobias. It is those who struggle valiantly to remedy the problem, braving a few phrases of a new language and bracing themselves for the reply which finally comes – broken and faltering perhaps – but almost inevitably in English. One morning, at a bakers in Copenhagen, I remember asking, in Danish, for a couple of wienerbrød. The woman replied in English, I battled on in Danish, she asserted herself in English, I gritted my teeth and pursued the Danish, she gritted hers and pursued the English and so we went on until I finally left the shop.
One of the great barriers we have to overcome is that most other Europeans are, by necessity, streets ahead of us in learning foreign languages, and in particular English. Many look for any opportunity to try out their English skills and we – demoralised and deflated – understandably give in.
However, this is not the whole picture. Another reason for our linguaphobia is the simple fact that we know so little about our own language. Most of us have little idea of how English is made up, we know nothing of pronouns and prepositions, and the word grammar strikes a note of horror, recalling images of clinical classrooms and military verb drills. Usually, it is only when we come to learn a foreign language that we gain our first real insight into our mother tongue. This seems to me a little like putting the cart before the horse or – as they say in Spanish – before the ox (poner el carro delante de los bueyes)!
Unfortunately, from the point of view of the non-native English speaker our general ignorance of foreign languages is frequently interpreted as arrogance. In learning a few phrases of the local language we offer other cultures an important token of respect and show people that we are prepared to meet them on their terms rather than expect them to surrender to our own. From our perspective, no matter how well other people speak English, the ability to speak their native tongue allows us a far deeper insight into the nuances of their culture and the nature of their values. It enables those wonderful, impromptu conversations with locals in shops, on trains and walks around town, and inevitably enhances our ability to build solid friendships and learn more about the world we live in.
I have based our Spanish language courses here in Spain on this philosophy and aim to put the horse back in front of the cart, to demystify Western European languages by revealing their infinite similarities as well as to provide people with the tools to help them make the most of the linguistic journey ahead of them. Language learning should also be fun! So, if you would rather launch yourself into conversation at the risk of error than remain tongue-tied in the search for perfection, then I encourage you all to confront the ghosts of linguaphobia!
*Except from my book Breaking the Language Barrier.
 (What we term Danish pastries, the Danes call Wienerbrød which transaltes literally to “Viennese bread” !?)