This island race is a disgrace

16th January 2004 at 00:00
The general idea these days seems to be that you don't learn for the sake of it; the main point of education is now financial profit and loss, with narrow-eyed calculations being made daily on the precise future value of every degree .

This philosophy is bound to filter down into the classroom soon ("Kevin, pay attention! It is a proven fact that not colouring in the right boxes in the Roger Red Hat worksheets causes up to 14 per cent lower lifetime earning power!").

So, here's a useful development for number-crunching pedagogues. A little report last week alleged that a leading European holiday park company is charging people up to pound;126 more if they book in English, through a British website and giving a domicile here. Germans, Dutch, and other Europeans are not surcharged.

There was the usual chuntering of complaints about "rip-off Britain", but a company spokesman apparently said that it was justified.

It is their attempt to recoup some of the cost of hiring multilingual staff to deal with British visitors, both during the booking process and when they actually turn up. British visitors, it appears, do not speak foreign languages. Well, there's a surprise.

Myself, I punched the air, overcome with a sense of justice. Going round Europe, whether by land or on the tall ships races in summer, I hear young Danes, Dutch and Norwegians politely talking German and French; Germans making spirited attempts on Spanish and Italian, and even the French squaring their shoulders and doing what they have to do in Dutch. Nearly all of them happily talk English. But two places in front of them in the queue, there is always a pink perspiring Briton who will talk only English.

Slowly, with a slight raising of the voice as if to a senile dog.

Hidden away in a hundred costas and holiday parks there are more of us, mewed up in holiday ghettos because we daren't go out and face a frightening world in which a muttered "Habla Ingles?" is not sufficient to guarantee that your interlocutor will say "Si".

We are a disgrace to ourselves, the way we don't regard getting even a smattering of the language as a courteous prelude to visiting other people's territory. I include myself in this: my French is OK because I was at school there for a few years, and I can struggle through most transactions in German: indeed I once managed to flirt all evening with an Austrian postman, though it later turned out that he thought we were discussing the late Princess Diana.

In Italy and Spain, however, I am tongue-tied, confusing the two vocabularies, helpless and embarrassed. Italy is slightly the easier of the two because I have a smattering of Grand Opera, but there is a limit to how far you can get at the car-hire desk with "Rittorna vincitor!" and "Addio senza rancor!", and appeals to the Virgin of the Angels to have pity on you.

In Spain, I mostly point and shrug.

Years have passed while I regretted this hopelessness; I have done nothing about it. My father learned Portuguese in two weeks when he was sent to work in Angola; he would have thought it disgraceful not even to try. But these days, with cheap flights and arrogant consumer choice, it is the norm.

When did you last hear someone saying "Oh no, I don't think we can go to Greece on holiday, we don't have time to learn any Greek". When did you last feel a pang of guilt because you, relatively affluent and idle, are delegating the task of communicating to some poor Croatian waiter poring over a borrowed phrasebook on his rare evenings off?

But now here are these splendid holiday park managers laying it on the line to us. "If you wanna come and have a holiday here and you won't even try to speak to the maid or the pool attendant in the language of the land, welcome but it'll cost you." Even better if they go further, and agree to return the extra charge if you pass a short, simple language test on arrival.

Then, all you language teachers can tell the yawning louts in the back row that this isn't just about Sats and GCSEs: if they pay attention, they'll save enough for a whole crate of vin rouge and a damn good night in a strip club.

If they don't, it's back to Pontin's for another year.

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