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Phil's back – and Big Brother is not the only thing worrying him about the English language

Allo! Allo! We're doomed

Over the years I've come to regard myself as a fairly well-educated Englishman. Disregarding certain unimportant cultural backwaters such as ballet, mime, classical music, modern art, rap music and religion, I know enough to get by and hold my own in conversation with my peers. But there is one gap in my knowledge that troubles me from time to time. I'm not very good with foreign languages.

It's true that I picked up some conversational German in my youth, but as I learned it all from Commando comics I've never really had the opportunity to use it in day-to-day dialogue. If I ever find myself addressing a group of British soldiers I'll know exactly what to say ('Teufel! Hande hoche, Englisher Schweinhund!'), and should I be sprayed with machine-gun fire by a crazed American GI, then the words 'Achtung! Gott in Himmel!' will fairly spring to my lips. But so far in my work as a GP, the chance has never arisen. Still, you never know what the future holds.

A tad complacent

Foreign language tuition in British schools is woefully inadequate. It is said that English, if you are not a native speaker, is one of the hardest languages to learn, so perhaps we are a tad complacent. 'We've learned English already, usually before we even have to turn up at school' we say to ourselves. 'We've done the hard bit. Why bother with these other easy languages?' So we don't.

I spent two hours a week on French at school and as a result I am the owner of a qualification in French: grade C at O-level. This means I can ask any French person how old they are, and if I can buy a grapefruit off them (un pamplemousse – marvellous word). I might not understand the answer, but at least I can ask.

It's not enough. One memory that still troubles me is from the time we went to France on a family holiday and my Dad was taken ill. As a French scholar, I was deputised to go to the chemist. 'Mon pere avait un malade de la tete,' I read from my notes. 'Il ne dormir pas. Aidez-nous!' The chemist placed his elbows on the desk and looked into my sweating teenaged face. 'Tell me all about it, Sonny Jim' he said, albeit in a very cool accent.

It seems the French education system takes English more seriously than we take French.

And there we have the crux of the problem. English has become the (ha!) lingua franca – everyone seems to want to learn English, and there is no pressure on us to learn any language other than our own.

And we can barely manage that.

I have watched Celebrity Big Brother with increasing horror. Some contestants seem to have a functional vocabulary of about 200 words, a quarter of which are profanities. And these people apparently represent our culture.

Quick on the uptake

An Indonesian student, who has been in the UK no more than four months, came to see me with paronychia affecting his thumb. 'Awfully painful doctor,' he said. 'It's been putting all week.' 'Putting' is a colloquialism meaning 'throbbing' that is understood by those living within a 10-mile radius of Sunderland, and nobody else. He had picked it up somehow.

My brother (also a GP) recently saw a man who, despite 40 years of British education and cultural exposure, was unable to explain what was the matter with him – other than by offering a drawing. He sketched a stick figure, with an arrow pointing to the genital area, labelled with the word 'testycals'. My brother was meant to diagnose and treat on this basis alone, other details being not forthcoming.

On coming to power, Tony Blair said the priority was 'education, education and education'. He has been wrong about many things, but he was right about that one.

pulse@cmpmedica.com

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland and PPA and MJA Columnist of the Year

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