Homework. Decades after leaving school I still get that moment of panic if I haven’t done mine come Sunday night. I try to get up early on Saturday to get it out of the way but sometimes my pillow appointment goes on way too long. However, after 18 months of lessons and an unbending routine of Duolingo I think I might, just might, be able to locate the bank, order a meal and tell random people how intelligent and beautiful they are – in Spanish.
At school I mustered some passable German – which still seems to be easier to recall than words learnt 24 hours ago in Spanish – but I was, to be blunt, pretty rubbish. It’s a failure that has bugged me more and more and is repeatedly highlighted in an office where many of our team seem to have been gifted multiple languages by having lives that have shifted across borders, or parents from different nations. (That’s sort of unfair in my book: they basically just had to talk to their mums and dads. Pah!) Meanwhile I grew up in a house where the most exotic life got was having spaghetti Bolognese on a Thursday.
So while my progress may be snail-paced, whenever I am in Spain I get a ridiculous kick from making myself understood in even the most basic of moments. And on a trip around Argentina last year I was almost giddy with triumph as I managed to variously buy fuel and secure directions that delivered us to the right hotel and not off the edge of a mountain.
This lack of languages is not just a failure of mine or my generation. In the UK the number of students studying languages is falling sharply – too expensive and time-consuming to keep on the curriculum – even as businesses call for more people with French, German and Spanish (and let’s not even start on how this lack of interest in other cultures is shaping political debate in the UK).
I detect, however, an interesting change: it feels like lots of people now set out after school to acquire the skills they really want. And so while the world of language apps may be flawed and simplistic, I like spying the Duolingo owl logo on people’s phone screens. It hints at a desire to connect and discover new cultures – or at least locate the nearest loo.