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Hands across the language divide

The newspaper headline screamed another educational deficiency. "Languages gap a disgrace" it declared back in June. Fewer than one in eight pupils, it appears, now choose to study French, German or Spanish beyond Standard grade.

Awareness of national insularity in general and my own linguistic shortcomings in particular hit me on a recent trip to France. My husband and I had travelled to Aubigny sur Nere (Haddington's twin town) with a choir from East Lothian. We two were lodged with a hospitable young couple who spoke little English.

Despite many years of studying French - of the literary variety, it has to be said, and that some considerable time ago - our attempts to communicate were beginning to run dry after three days. Indeed, if it had not been for Remy, an eight-month old charmer who conversed in suitably international monosyllables, our efforts might have dried up altogether.

Come to think of it, Remy is exactly the right age to start learning a second language. Research at Cornell University, using magnetic resonance imaging on areas of the brain, has revealed just why it is much easier for small children to learn a second language.

The Hadley Court Singers were there to take part in a European Festival of choirs, along with choirs from France, Switzerland and Germany. The choirs were accompanied by local council leaders and officials. Our weekend climaxed with a giant concert in the local sports stadium, at which each choir performed individually, followed by massed renderings of such Euro-favourites as Ode to Joy and the Slaves' Chorus.

At the end of a long hot afternoon there was to be no early escape to refreshments. One by one the civic leaders from the various nations came forward to express the joys and benefits of musical fraternisation, (and, no doubt, justify their travel costs) before exchanging suitable civic gifts. Each lengthy oration was couched in classic twinning-speak, and most of it could have been penned by the same conscientious Brussels bureaucrat. All had to be lengthily translated into the other two languages, paragraph by paragraph.

After half an hour of this, some of the audience could take no more. People started to slide away. But the massed choirs were trapped. Salvation was fortunately at hand because finally it was the turn of our own convener from East Lothian to take the floor. He waved away the interpreters, and advanced scriptless.

"The choirs' tongues are hangin' oot," he announced, very truthfully as it happens. "I'm ony gonnae say one thing."

Fixing the eye of the mayor of Aubigny with the firm look of a Scotsman who knows when to put politics in its place, he addressed his French counterpart thus: "You're on the right and ah'm on the left, and we're gonnae shake hands on it." Which is what happened, resoundingly, to the enormous enthusiasm of all singers present.

Next spring our Aubigny hosts descend on Haddington to help celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Siege of Haddington. That, you will remember, occurred during the Rough Wooing, when the town was occupied and gravely damaged by the English. The Scots and their French allies together laid the successful siege which expelled the auld enemy.

Who cares if the English did actually just steal away in the night when no one was looking? It's a great excuse for a party. As for me, I've signed up for an intensive course in intermediate French before Aubigny descends on Haddington.

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