Class conscious

I've just returned from France, and I'm wondering how to explain my abilities at the language. I would say "My French is really shocking", only that's exactly what a certain type of English middle-class person says because it's politer than mentioning that, actually, he speaks it beautifully.

Such is this cult of understatement regarding languages that I find it hard to convey my true inadequacies. A couple of years ago, I went to a stag night in Normandy with a bunch of public- school-educated blokes, and on the ferry over I was asked: "How's your French?"

"Pathetic," I'd say, "really useless." "Bit rusty, eh?" they'd reply. "Me, too. God knows how I got through all that Proust at university."

What I should have said - because it became evident soon enough - is: "I cannot speak French at all."

Perhaps unfairly, I blame my education. I went to a secondary modern school (cue violins) where French was an optional subject, and in order to take the CSE, you had to drop a science, so I sacrificed biology. I'd like to have sacrificed woodwork, but that was compulsory. The result is that today, as I struggle to make myself understood by some sardonic French waiter, I'm tempted to blurt: "Do you realise that I might have been a brilliant biologist but for my desire to learn what little bit of your language is encompassed by a CSE?" But it would cut little ice, and in any case, he wouldn't understand.

Do these French waiters take my lack of French as symptomatic of English arrogance and therefore a function of poshness, or do they put it down to plain prole-ishness, which is indeed the true cause? I don't know, and not only do I not know what the French make of me class-wise, I don't know what to make of them.

Working-class French people, after all, exhibit so many of the traits of the English middle classes: they're sticklers for fresh bread and sanguinary steaks; their dogs are small and non-violent; they prefer French mustard to English. I quickly find myself disorientated over there, because I need the English class system to navigate by. Without it, I don't know who I am or where I'm going.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain