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An essay by Max Beerbohm

On Speaking French (1919)

Title:     On Speaking French (1919)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

Wherever two Englishmen are speaking French to a Frenchman you may safely diagnose in the breast of one of the two humiliation, envy, ill-will, impotent rage, and a dull yearning for vengeance; and you can take it that the degree of these emotions is in exact ratio to the superiority of the other man's performance. In the breast of this other are contempt, malicious amusement, conceit, vanity, pity, and joy in ostentation; these, also, exactly commensurable with his advantage. Strange and sad that this should be so; but so it is. French brings out the worst in all of us--all, I mean, but the few, the lamentably far too few, who cannot aspire to stammer some colloquial phrases of it.

Even in Victorian days, when England was more than geographically, was psychologically an island, French made mischief among us, and was one of the Devil's favourite ways of setting brother against brother. But in those days the bitterness of the weaker brother was a little sweetened with disapproval of the stronger. To speak French fluently and idiomatically and with a good accent--or with an idiom and accent which to other rough islanders seemed good--was a rather suspect accomplishment, being somehow deemed incompatible with civic worth. Thus the weaker ones had not to drain the last lees of their shame, and the stronger could not wholly rejoice in their strength. But the old saving prejudice has now died out (greatly to the delight of the Devil), and there seems no chance that it will be revived.

Of other languages no harm comes. None of us--none, at any rate, outside the diplomatic service--has a feeling that he ought to be master of them. In every recent generation a few men have learned Italian because of the Divina Commedia; and a very few others have tried Spanish, with a view to Cervantes; and German has pestered not always vainly the consciences of young men gravitating to philosophy or to science. But not for social, not for any oral purposes were these languages essayed. If an Italian or a Spanish or a German came among us he was expected to converse in English or spend his time in visiting the sights silently and alone. No language except French has ever--but stay! There was, at the outbreak of the War, a great impulse towards Russian. All sorts of people wanted their children to be taught Russian without a moment's delay. I do not remember that they wanted to learn it themselves; but they felt an extreme need that their offspring should hereafter be able to converse with moujiks about ikons and the Little Father and anything else--if there were anything else--that moujiks cared about. This need, however, is not felt now. When, so soon after his de'but in high politics, M. Kerensky was superseded by M. Lenin, Russian was forthwith deemed a not quite nice language, even for children. Russia's alphabet was withdrawn from the nurseries as abruptly as it had been brought in, and le chapean de la cousine du jardinier was re-indued with its old importance.

I doubt whether Russian would for more than a little while have seemed to be a likely rival of French, even if M. Kerensky had been the strong man we hoped he was. The language that succeeded to Latin as the official mode of intercourse between nations, and as the usual means of talk between the well-educated people of any one land and those of any other, had an initial advantage not quite counterbalanced by the fact that there are in Russia myriads of people who speak Russian, and a few who can also read and write it. Russian may, for aught I know, be a very beautiful language; it may be as lucid and firm in its constructions as French is, and as musical in sound; I know nothing at all about it. Nor do I claim for French that it was by its own virtues predestined to the primacy that it holds in Europe. Had Italy, not France, been an united and powerful nation when Latin became desuete, that primacy would of course have been taken by Italian. And I cannot help wishing that this had happened. Italian, though less elegant, is, for the purpose of writing, a richer language than French, and an even subtler; and the sound of it spoken is as superior to the sound of French as a violin's is to a flute's. Still, French does, by reason of its exquisite concision and clarity, fill its post of honour very worthily, and will not in any near future, I think, be thrust down. Many people, having regard to the very numerous population of the British Empire and the United States, cherish a belief that English will presently be cock of the world's walk. But we have to consider that English is an immensely odd and irregular language, that it is accounted very difficult by even the best foreign linguists, and that even among native writers there are few who can so wield it as to make their meaning clear without prolixity--and among these few none who has not been well-grounded in Latin. By its very looseness, by its way of evoking rather than defining, suggesting rather than saying, English is a magnificent vehicle for emotional poetry. But foreigners don't much want to say beautiful haunting things to us; they want to be told what limits there are, if any, to the power of the Lord Mayor; and our rambling endeavours to explain do but bemuse and annoy them. They find that the rewards of learning English are as slight as its difficulties are great, and they warn their fellows to this effect. Nor does the oral sound of English allay the prejudice thus created. Soothing and dear and charming that sound is to English ears. But no nation can judge the sound of its own language. This can be judged only from without, only by ears to which it is unfamiliar. And alas, much as we like listening to French or Italian, for example, Italians and Frenchmen (if we insist on having their opinion) will confess that English has for them a rather harsh sound. Altogether, it seems to me unlikely that the world will let English supplant French for international purposes, and likely that French will be ousted only when the world shall have been so internationalised that the children of every land will have to learn, besides their own traditional language, some kind of horrible universal lingo begotten on Volapuk by a congress of the world's worst pedants.

Almost I could wish I had been postponed to that era, so much have I suffered through speaking French to Frenchmen in the presence of Englishmen. Left alone with a Frenchman, I can stumble along, slowly indeed, but still along, and without acute sense of ignominy. Especially is this so if I am in France. There is in the atmosphere something that braces one for the language. I don't say I am not sorry, even so, for my Frenchman. But I am sorrier for him in England. And if any Englishmen be included in the scene my sympathy with him is like to be lost in my agony for myself.

Would that I had made some such confession years ago! O folly of pride! I liked the delusion that I spoke French well, a delusion common enough among those who had never heard me. Somehow I seemed likely to possess that accomplishment. I cannot charge myself with having ever claimed to possess it; but I am afraid that when any one said to me `I suppose you speak French perfectly?' I allowed the tone of my denial to carry with it a hint of mock-modesty. `Oh no,' I would say, `my French is wretched,' rather as though I meant that a member of the French Academy would detect lapses from pure classicism in it; or `No, no, mine is French pour rire,' to imply that I was practically bilingual. Thus, during the years when I lived in London, I very often received letters from hostesses asking me to dine on the night when Mme. Chose or M. Tel was coming. And always I excused myself--not on the plea that I should be useless. This method of mine would have been well enough, from any but the moral standpoint, had not Nemesis, taking her stand on that point, sometimes ordained that a Gaul should be sprung on me. It was not well with me then. It was downfall and disaster.

Strange, how one will trifle with even the most imminent doom. On being presented to the Gaul, I always hastened to say that I spoke his or her language only `un tout petit peu'--knowing well that this poor spark of slang would kindle within the breast of M. Tel or the bosom of Mme. Chose hopes that must so quickly be quenched in the puddle of my incompetence. I offer no excuse for so foolish a proceeding. I do but say it is characteristic of all who are duffers at speaking a foreign tongue. Great is the pride they all take in airing some little bit of idiom. I recall, among many other pathetic exemplifiers of the foible, an elderly and rather eminent Greek, who, when I was introduced to him, said `I am jolly glad to meet you, Sir!' and, having said that, had nothing whatever else to say, and was moreover unable to grasp the meaning of anything said by me, though I said the simplest things, and said them very slowly and clearly. It is to my credit that in speaking English to a foreigner I do always try to be helpful. I bear witness against Mme. Chose and M. Tel that for me they have never made a like effort in their French. It is said that French people do not really speak faster than we, and that their seeming to do so is merely because of their lighter stress on syllables. If this is true, I wish that for my sake they would stress their syllables a little more heavily. By their omission of this kindness I am so often baffled as to their meaning. To be shamed as a talker is bad enough; it is even worse to be shamed in the humble refuge of listener. To listen and from time to time murmur `C'est vrai' may seem safe enough; yet there is danger even here. I wish I could forget a certain luncheon in the course of which Mme. Chose (that brilliant woman) leaned suddenly across the table to me, and, with great animation, amidst a general hush, launched at me a particularly swift flight of winged words. With pensively narrowed eyes, I uttered my formula when she ceased. This formula she repeated, in a tone even more pensive than mine. `Mais je ne le connais pas,' she then loudly exclaimed. `Je ne connais pas me^me le nom. Dites-moi de ce jeune homme.' She had, as it presently turned out, been asking me which of the younger French novelists was most highly thought of by English critics; so that her surprise at never having heard of the gifted young Se'vre' was natural enough.

We all--but no, I must not say that we all have painful memories of this kind. Some of us can understand every word that flies from the lips of Mme. Chose or from the mouth of M. Tel. Some of us can also talk quickly and well to either of these pilgrims; and others can do the trick passably. But the duffers are in a great grim majority; and the mischief that French causes among us is mainly manifest, not (I would say) by weaker brethren hating the stronger, but by weak ones hating the less weak.

As French is a subject on which we all feel so keenly, a point of honour on which we are all so sensitive, how comes it that our general achievement is so slight? There was no lack of hopes, of plans, that we should excel. In many cases Time was taken for us by the forelock, and a French nurse installed. But alas! little children are wax to receive and to retain. They will be charmingly fluent speakers of French within six weeks of Mariette's arrival, and will have forgotten every word of it within as brief an interval after her departure. Later, their minds become more retentive, though less absorbent; and then, by all means, let French be taught. Taught it is. At the school where I was reared there were four French masters; four; but to what purpose? Their class-rooms were scenes of eternal and incredible pandemonium, filled with whoops and catcalls, with devil's-tattoos on desks, and shrill inquiries for the exact date of the battle of Waterloo. Nor was the lot of those four men exceptional in its horror. >From the accounts given to me by `old boys' of other schools I have gathered that it was the common lot of French masters on our shores; and I have often wondered how much of the Anglophobia recurrent among Frenchmen in the nineteenth century was due to the tragic tales told by those of them who had returned from our seminaries to die on their own soil. Since 1914, doubtless, French masters have had a very good time in England. But, even so, I doubt whether they have been achieving much in the way of tutelage. With the best will in the world, a boy will profit but little by three or four lessons a week (which are the utmost that our system allows him). What he wants, or at any rate will want, is to be able to cope with Mme. Chose. A smattering of the irregular verbs will not much avail him in that emprise. Not in the dark by-ways of conjugation, but on the sunny field of frank social intercourse, must he prove his knighthood. I would recommend that every boy, on reaching the age of sixteen, should be hurled across the Channel into the midst of some French family and kept there for six months. At the end of that time let him be returned to his school, there to make up for lost time. Time well lost, though: for the boy will have become fluent in French, and will ever remain so.

Fluency is all. If the boy has a good ear, he will speak with a good accent; but his accent is a point about which really he needn't care a jot. So is his syntax. Not with these will he win the heart of Mme. Chose, not with these the esteem of M. Tel, not with these anything but a more acrid rancour in the silly hostility of his competitors. If a foreigner speaks English to us easily and quickly, we demand no more of him; we are satisfied, we are delighted, and any mistakes of grammar or pronunciation do but increase the charm, investing with more than its intrinsic quality any good thing said--making us marvel at it and exchange fatuous glances over it, as we do when a little child says something sensible. But heaven protect us from the foreigner who pauses, searches, fumbles, revises, comes to standstills, has recourse to dumb-show! Away with him, by the first train to Dover! And this, we may be sure, is the very train M. Tel and Mme. Chose would like to catch whenever they meet me--or you?

Max Beerbohm's essay: On Speaking French (1919)