If I had to define Londoners’ relationship with foreign languages, I would say: it is a challenge.
Before coming here, I thought London would be the one place where no one spoke less than a couple languages. Having lived in Strasbourg, that, all with being on the border with Germany and hosting the European Parliament (in the neighbourhood I used to live in!), was rich in bicultural and bilingual individuals, I imagined London could only be more so. After all, more than 40% of Inner London inhabitants (and more than 30% of people living in Outer London) were born outside the UK; around 2.5 millions foreigners call London home! (Data here.) Well, the remaining 60-70% is apparently not a huge fan of foreign languages.
I probably suffer from some sort of bias in this analysis, given the fact that I live with someone who speaks – how many? At least four or five languages fluently, and a half dozen more in tidbits. (And having studied five foreign languages + three dead ones myself). But still, I was quite shocked when I started attending my Modern Greek course in September. There about a dozen of us, most of them British; and almost all of them struggle terribly. There’s one Lithuanian girl who’s very good. Now, part of my advantage comes from the many years of Ancient Greek I took, but I think the biggest difference is in me learning my eight language, them their second. One of them was once ranting that vowels just don’t sound like they do in English (where there is no easy rule to follow anyway!). She was going on and on telling me how difficult it is to learn another language, while I bit my tongue; the one other woman said: ‘Yeah, I think Anna knows’. Hilarity ensued.
You know how Anthony Mollica said: Monolingualism can be cured (oh I love that quote)?
Well, I’d like to add: Unless you’re British, in which case, give up if you want to…
Then again, it is lots of fun. London is a city where you can learn tons of languages (there is a Farsi class going on not far from my home!). And you can meet people speaking the least expected of them. And I’m ending up tutoring some other students at my Greek course, which is lots of fun.
Then, I love how surprised people are when they find out I can (sort of speak) their language. A couple days ago, while I was getting out of the British Library at the end of a long work day, one of the guards thought it fun to mock me in French: ‘Ah, bonsoir, Mademoiselle… on fait quoi, on va á la maison, eh?’ (‘Hey there, miss, you going home?’) Suddenly, words escaped him when I replied ‘Eh, vous savez, il faut bien y aller quelquefois…’ (‘Eh, you know, people have to sometimes’). I had a good chuckle over that!