A Swiss German acquaintance recently told me the story of a visit he and his family had made to Wales. Walking down the main street of a Welsh town and conversing animatedly in alemanique (Swiss German), they overheard a passing couple of English tourists say to each other "how nice to hear people speaking in Welsh!"
The story has two possible morals: some versions of alemanique are like nothing else on earth; or the linguistic sensitivity of many English people leaves something to be desired.
Having been involved in an earlier career in attempts to raise the profile of foreign languages in England, it is interesting to see the issues now from the perspective of an international school. Language learning is inevitably at the heart of the curriculum in a bilingual school with pupils from more than a hundred nationalities.
Large numbers leave with a bilingual International Baccalaureate and even where pupils take the IB in one of the school's two languages (English and French) they are usually conversationally fluent in the other language as well. This does not mean that we are without our problems: some English-speaking pupils, especially if they know that they are only going to be in the school for a few years, make little effort to learn French, and some staff mix little outside their own language group.
We also find that encouraging pupils to take German as their third language comes up against the usual problems. It is extraordinary that in a largely German-speaking country, Spanish, after English and French, is far and away the most popular language. At least those students following the Swiss baccalaureate have no choice but to continue the study of a second Swiss national language (German or Italian) to 18.
In trying to raise the status and popularity of foreign languages much depends, of course, on the amount of time devoted to the subject, the quality of the teachers and the effectiveness of the teaching methods. The core problem, however, is motivation.
As someone who did not always take foreign languages very seriously at school, I now have an overwhelming incentive, as head of a group of bilingual schools, to perfect my French. Most of my English-speaking pupils feel likewise: life in a French-speaking country is much more fun if you can speak the language. Similarly my French-speaking pupils are bombarded with messages in English - in films, television, advertisements and pop music - and are well aware of the enormous advantages for employment of being able to speak English.
How can we possibly replicate such an environment and stimulate such levels of motivation in monolingual England, within a world context in which English is seen as the most important global language and the language of the future? This is the core problem that so many foreign language initiatives have sought unsuccessfully to address. It is difficult to be other than pessimistic.
I have three rather general expatriate thoughts to add to the debate.
First, one of our difficulties is that, with the democratisation of our society and culture, we have lost a clear notion of what it is to be "an educated person". This has partly come about because of a confused distrust of "elitism". We need to rediscover the idea that schooling is about striving to become a certain sort of educated person, and that one of the many things involved in being a properly educated and cultured person is a familiarity with the language and culture of an autre pays.
Second, we need a greater sense of responsibility on the part of our mass media, and in particular public sector broadcasting. Part of this responsibility should be to increase our exposure to other languages. Why, for example, can't a certain number of news items each week be in another language, followed by an English summary?
Third, we might begin to take other languages more seriously if we took our membership of Europe more seriously. One reason why many continental Europeans are more linguistically aware is because they have a sense of identity with a wider multi-lingual community.
In one of his poems the communist Scottish poet Hugh Mac-Diarmid has a vision of a culturally transformed Glasgow in which the latest Turkish verse "sells like hot cakes". Let's forget about aspirations such as these, but with 50 per cent of the population due to go to university we can at least try to ensure that rather more of them have the motivation to continue studying a foreign language.
Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva