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FRONT LINE FIRST - FRENCH WITH TEARS

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Estelle Morris's plans to allow pupils to give up foreign languages at the age of 14 puts me in mind of my own enco...
Estelle Morris's plans to allow pupils to give up foreign languages at the age of 14 puts me in mind of my own encounter with the French language at Ripon Grammar School.

French was the only foreign language taught at the school. Latin was taught by the Cathedral Precentor, as there was no permanent staff member with that discipline. Classes took place in the sanitary block, which says something about the status it enjoyed within the curriculum. But Latin was necessary to get into Oxford, though actually passing

O-level Latin was generally seen as a sign of eccentricity.

My French textbook began with: 'Voici la rue. Dans la rue il y a un reverbere, le trottoir, un kiosque et un passant.' Since we had all of these things in Ripon, with the exception of the kiosk, this was a disappointing introduction to the imagined delights of a nation which had given the world Brigitte Bardot. Worse was to come: the two heroes of the textbook, Georges and Lucienne, took us down to the farm to pick up a bit of rural vocabulary. 'Lucienne a peur des cornes de la vache,' we were helpfully informed, provoking derision from the massed ranks of the sons of local farmers. Speculation as to what assets French bulls had was cut short by the French teacher who was himself regarded as alien because he read The Times, rather than the Yorkshire Post or, at a pinch, the Daily Telegraph.

I survived to study English, French and History for A-level. French did not get any better. Georges and Lucienne gave way to Racine, Corneille and Molière. The small group of Sixth Arts students found their experience of the Combined Cadet Force poor preparation for the passionate struggles of Britannicus and Horace expressed in heroic couplets, while the sight of the teacher convulsed with laughter while explaining the richness of the humour in Le Malade Imaginaire merely confirmed our view that he was slightly dotty.

But English literature was hardly any better. Robert Browning's dramatic monologues were never likely to wake the creative muse buried deep in the breasts of the (as it was then) West Riding's finest. Invited to write an appraisal of Bishop Bloughram's Apology, Gos Richardson, who later pursued a career in catering, got it about right when he described the poem as 'a monument to Browning's perseverance.' Since this one sentence constituted his entire essay, and since the class was taught by the headmaster, the concision of his remarks proved not to be a good move. It did, however, earn him the awed admiration of his colleagues.

I step forward a generation. The scene is the kitchen table. Enter stage right three children wanting help with their French homework. Enter stage left the mother of the aforementioned children. Within two minutes the children are on the verge of tears, Mrs Curry is ascending into uncomprehending fury and the British education system is being torn to bits. How on earth can children learn a foreign language when they are taught their own language in complete ignorance of any rules of grammar? That, at any rate, is the gist of Mrs Curry's theme as she struggles in vain to extract from the Curry heirs any concept of the past participle or the personal pronoun. Mrs Curry is French.

The answer is obvious: all schools should teach English as a foreign language. With one strange tongue under their belt our children might even dare to add another. Lucienne, after all, seemed quite a pretty girl . . .

David Curry

Conservative MP, Skipton & Ripon

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