Katie Smith encourages readers to embrace foreign languages.


I’m a language student, and a passionate (read: irritatingly excitable and self-righteous) one at that. I’m forever trying to coerce friends to dig down deep into their long-forgotten GCSE German vocabulary, or preaching about the beauty of the French subjunctive. More often than not, though, the response is “No Katie, really, I was always rubbish at French at school. I’m just not a language person”.

Not a language person? Are you joking?

Let’s get one thing straight: everybody is a language person. If you managed to learn to speak perfect English when you were a foot high, without putting in the least bit of effort other than unconsciously eavesdropping on what the very tall people around you were talking about, then you can definitely manage “Je voudrais une glace au chocolat, s’il vous plaît”. Saying “I’m not a language person” is simply not an excuse. In fact, it’s worse than an excuse; it’s illogical, a paradox. The very fact that you’re able to put that sentence together in the first place shows that you most definitely are a language person – you’re just underestimating yourself. Well, never fear, for I am on a crusade to rid unsuspecting linguists-in-the-making of this totally unfounded sense of self-doubt and linguistic incapability.

The other thing that seems to hold people back (according to my extensive research, anyway…) is the fear of sounding stupid: the fear that, when you’re abroad, all the locals are just sitting about, listening intently and waiting for you to make a mistake – so that if you do manage to swallow your nerves and mutter “Un… un… un vin blanc, s’il vous plaît”, every French person for miles around will point and laugh, and recount the story of ce touriste stupide avec l’accent horrible at dinner parties for years to come. I can definitely empathise with that feeling – the first time I ordered a crêpe in Paris my heart was in my mouth – but this, too, is an unfounded fear. I promise. I said all manner of accidentally inappropriate, ridiculous and just plain wrong things during my year abroad – but it just doesn’t matter. Nobody will bat an eyelid if you accidentally say une instead of un croissant – more likely, they’ll be relieved that finally a tourist has arrived who, instead of pointing and speaking in very loud, slow English, is sufficiently interested in the local culture to make a bit of an effort. And if you really do inadvertently embarrass yourself, then what does it matter anyway? The anecdote will make for a funny Facebook status, at the very least.

Learning another language isn’t a chore; it’s liberating. It gives you the freedom to communicate with a whole new group of people, and the smug feeling that comes from being able to eavesdrop when on holiday; it gives you the power to learn about a new culture, and a heightened awareness of your native language. Quite frankly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t spend all their free time listening to Teach-Yourself-Italian…


Katie Smith


Image credit Creative Commons