I am looking at a video of the European Parliament on the other BBC’s website. They are arguing about Gibraltar. There is nothing new in this; they have been arguing about Gibraltar for over 300 years and they will probably be arguing about it for the next 300. Brexit has put it back on the table.
Guy Verhofstadt, one of the lead negotiators for the EU in the months that will follow, fires the opening shots. He declares that Brexit is a mistake, a “cat fight within the conservative party” which Britain will one day regret.
Nigel Farage, the most prominent Eurosceptic in the chamber, turns the ship to return fire. He takes one look at his notes, puts down the paper and lights the cannons. The volley of shots thunders across the floor. He is a good speaker, you must say that. His rhetoric is clear, well articulated and pregnant with emotion. I don’t like him, but I enjoy listening to him.
Verhofstadt is the archetypal Eurocrat. There is no emotion in his voice, his eyes seldom stray far from the paper. He has his best lines written down but he is struggling to get them out of his mouth.
Farage has the best of it, that’s for sure. The wooden walls of the Eurocrat splinter and he sinks below the waterline.
It is a fight between a nuclear submarine and a tugboat. But unlike the sea, the European Parliament is not always a level playing field. MEPs have the choice of talking through an interpreter or choosing to speak English. If you are Belgian like Mr Verhofstadt then either way something will get lost in translation. The Englishman Farage has no such difficulties.
You can never underestimate the advantage of being an English native speaker. In debates like this it gives Farage a full deck of torpedos while the Belgian is loading cannons with tennis balls.
Verhofstadt speaks good English but will never be as good as Farage. Most politicians do not trust themselves to speak a foreign language in public for fear of making mistakes. Angela Merkel’s English is excellent but you will never hear it in her speeches. Vladimir Putin, never exactly an Anglophile, also has a good command of the language but rarely uses more than the occasional polite phrase when the cameras are there. Michel Barnier, the EU’s other top negotiator, has said that he will only communicate in French during the negotiations because he does not want to be misunderstood. Let’s just hope that the Brexiteers remember to bring their phrase books.
Learning a language is not easy. Most British people barely even scratch the surface of the complexities involved. Far too many British tourists order croissants and jam in their broken school French and claim parity with Voltaire –but they are not even close to understanding what it’s like to learn a language.
The formalities and practicalities are immense. Here’s a story for you:
A colleague of mine teaches German to Syrian refugees. As in Britain, the general public feels that immigrants must “learn the language”. I could not agree more. So my colleague must teach the Syrians German. To do this, she first needs to teach them to write. Not “learn the western alphabet”. Write. They are also illiterate in Arabic.
She has a book and so they start to learn to write. Lesson one is how to hold a pen correctly. So is lesson two, lesson three and lesson four. She speaks no Arabic, they speak only Arabic. Some weeks later they can open the book. Later still they are taught the functions of nouns, verbs and adjectives. They must colour the nouns in red, the verbs in blue and the adjectives in black. They have been given one black pen each.
Most of us can hold a pen and distinguish a verb from an adjective. But learning a foreign language often makes you feel like a naughty little schoolboy. You make grammatical mistakes in your mid 30s that native-born six-year olds do not make. You make an idiot of yourself on a daily basis, often for many years.
You say the strangest of things. When I was in France I once said that if you had a mouse on your face then people would always like you. I meant to say a smile.
French is harmless compared to German. In German I once told my students that when I had important customers then I wore a sanitary towel. I meant to say a tie. I explained to a group of engineers the value of a good lubricant. I got the wrong word for “lubricant”. I once suggested to my colleagues that we should go to the Irish pub because it was a good place to for an orgy. I meant to say that it’s easy to get to by public transport.
I am not alone in my weirdness. An English friend of mine once tried to tell his mother-in-law that he had taken the cat to the vet to get its paws trimmed. He got the word for “paw” wrong. The word he actually said is also a body part and can also be trimmed –typically before photo shoots for Playboy.
It is an embarrassing process and it is a slow process. It’s like building the Trump Tower using Lego bricks. And yet you get there in the end. I often think that we spend so much time criticising immigrants who don’t speak the language that we lose respect for the ones that do.
It changes the way you think. Unlike the Trump Tower there is no ceiling, no glorious moment when you plant the flagpole at the summit. There is always another floor to build, another hill to climb. So you stop thinking in absolutes. Words like “perfect” lose their meaning. You can no longer think in terms of black and white. You realise the value of small steps. You look out for nuance and subtlety where once you read over the page. You regard the concept of insurmountable difficulty with scepticism. Patience is your biggest friend.
I often wonder whether the monolingual nature of Britain has an effect on the way that many of her people see the world. Giant leaps, dramatic gestures, quick and simple solutions. I remind myself that watching too many episodes of Coronation Street probably has the same effect. It is I who am now over simplifying.
Monoglotism may very well have an influence on Nigel Farage. He has lived and worked in France and Belgium for twenty years now but does not speak French. Actually, that’s not quite true: he once joked that he was “quite capable of finding his way round a wine list”. His experience of learning languages is of the croissant-and-jam type.
When I play the video back I become more critical of him. He strings together simple adjectives and his sentences convey little in terms of actual content. His delivery is still good; he is fast and funny. But sooner or later his mouth disengages from his brain and he puts his foot in it. This time he calls the EU a mafia. The Italians are duly offended.
He is in such a rush to place the torpedo into the tube that he puts it in the wrong way round. Bang! His ship is sinking.
He always does this. This is how we found out that he speaks such poor French. And then there is the time he blamed immigrants for his being late for a radio interview because they cause too many traffic jams. There is the night after the referendum when he declared that Britain had won its freedom “without a shot being fired”. He was forgetting the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.
He speaks in leaps and bounds and he puts his foot in it. What is it the Irish say? “Often a man’s mouth has broken his nose.”
Farage does not believe in small steps and I doubt he will ever risk making a fool of himself by trying to learn French properly. But then Nigel Farage does not need to. Nigel Farage is quite capable of making a fool of himself in English.