What makes a language attractive – its sound, national identity or familiarity?

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portrait of charles v of spain

‘I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse,’ Roman emperor Charles V delcared. Photograph: Alamy

Je t’aime, ti amo, te quiero mucho! Sounds nice doesn’t it? If you swoon over sweet nothings whispered in French, Italian or Spanish, you’re not alone. But while learning to speak a language famed for its romance may increase your sex appeal, the reason for your preference of one vernacular over another may have little to do with how the sounds roll off the tip of your tongue.

Polyglot Roman emperor Charles V declared: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” While the 16th century ruler’s views may still hold true to some today, his unflattering opinion of the latter language is more likely to be influenced not by the power and status of the country at the time than the tone of its speakers.

Sociolinguists believe the attractiveness of a language is determined by how positively we view a particular group of people who share a cultural outlook. According to Dr Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex, if we have a positive perception of a particular community then we tend to have equally positive views of the language they speak.

Language value and attractiveness is, she explains, linked to the prestige of the speaker. In other words, the socioeconomic and mobility advantages the language affords. Chinese, for example, is gaining in popularity because it is seen as an area of economic growth and speaking that particular tonal tongue means better job prospects. Languages spoken by a community that are less economically powerful may not be seen in the same positive light.

Similarly, we value languages that allow us to speak to a wider audience. English, therefore, is seen as more valuable because it gives us the ability to communicate outside of a small regionally defined context, whereas a language that is spoken by a much smaller community, such as Hawaiian, is not seen as important or appealing.

“There is nothing in the sound of the language that makes it less or more attractive,” insists Chand. “Some sounds are more common across the world but that doesn’t link to the specific perceptions we have about French and Italian. The idea that a language is more melodic, romantic, poetic and musical are derived from those communities and regions.”

There is, the linguist explains, a very tight coupling between how we see a community and region, and how we perceive their language. So no matter how hard a speaker tries to woo a listener with delicate prose, if they don’t have the social kudos to back it up, the response is unlikely to be favourable.

There are, however, specific sounds in many foreign languages that a native English speaker may find alien and therefore harder on the ear. Languages that have different linguistic structures, such as using tones or sounds that are not found in a listener’s native tongue, are probably going to sound less enticing.

“English speakers are drawn to the melody of a language such as French or Italian,” explains Dr Patti Adank, a lecturer on speech, hearing and phonetic sciences at University College London (UCL). “In comparison, languages such as Thai or Mandarin can sound harsh because they are using tonal distinctions. It sounds very unnatural and unexpected.”

In his book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher agrees that if a language includes rarer sounds, it is more likely to be perceived as less alluring to those unfamiliar with it.

The same, he writes, applies to unusual sound combinations such as consonant clusters. He cites the combination “lbstv” in “selbstverständlich” – the German word for “obvious” – as an example of how strange phonetics can grate on a foreign ear. Deutscher explains: “Italian, for example, has very few, if any, sounds that are not shared by other European languages, and few consonant clusters, and it is widely considered a beautiful language. This may not be a coincidence.”

Attempts to understand this phenomenon have spawned various YouTube videos of amateur linguists speaking gibberish with perfect accents to give us a clue how one might sound to someone who doesn’t speak the same language. Comedian Sid Cesar was well known for his nonsensical “double talk” routines, which had a similar aim.

But despite many people’s fascination with the subject, there has been surprisingly little research conducted to explore it further. Chand says the biggest hurdle to understanding why some languages sound more inviting than others is separating subjective opinion from scientific fact. Labelling certain languages as ugly or beautiful is also a dangerous game many linguists are keen not to play.

She says: “We spend a lot of time in linguistics dispelling myths and the notion of hierarchical languages in terms of attractiveness, grammar and rules. There is less research on this because it is opening a can of worms you don’t really want to encourage.

“There hasn’t been any research that I know of that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community.”

The Guardian

Cooking with strangers: the best way to learn a language?

Sarah Johnson struggles with shaping pizza dough, but she does pick up some Italian when taking a combined cookery and language class.

PizzaSome dutch courage may have been needed at the start of the lesson, but by the end the room was buzzing. Photograph: Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis

“Everyone take a big gulp of wine. We’re going to start speaking Italian.”

I’m sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant in London with a group of people I’ve never met before. We’re here for a combined cooking and language class, and a bit of Dutch courage sounds like a great idea. I’ve always wondered why learning languages doesn’t incorporate more drinking. It’s a social lubricant, boosts confidence levels and loosens the tongue. And my language skills always seem so much better after a few drinks.

The class is led by language teacher, Rafaella Palumbo, and her assistant Guido Piccoli, a city worker by day and Italian cooking and language maestro by night. Palumbo tells me, “Italian is not requested so much as a language, but everyone loves Italian food. I started the classes three years ago to introduce get people speaking Italian in a relaxed environment.”

We’re separated from the rest of the restaurant by a small corridor where waiters congregate waiting for food from the kitchen. Palumbo warns us that, in true Italian style, the chefs get more animated as the night goes on. Images of men chucking flour and eggs at each other while gesticulating and cursing at each other in Italian flash through my mind. I make a mental note to avoid the kitchen area.

Class starts with learning the correct pronunciation of bruschetta. Commonly pronounced across the English speaking world with a soft ‘sh’ sound in the middle of the word, I get the impression from Raffaella’s insistence on repeating it over and over again, that it is a cause of great annoyance to Italians who say brus-k-etta, instead. The bastardisation of one’s native language is never nice to hear, after all.

We then move on to introductions. Rafaella and Guido make a great double act as they demonstrate how to say “what’s your name?” (come ti chiami?) and “my name is …” (mi chiamo …).

We go around the table, one by one, to give everyone the chance to practise greetings, how to say their name and where they’re from. Butterflies start flapping in my stomach. It’s a long time since I was in a language class speaking up in front of classmates, let alone a room full of strangers. I’m not the only one to feel a bit nervous. The pressure is so much for one girl that she temporarily forgets her name.

With introductions out of the way, we learn how to say the ingredients we are going to cook with. On the menu tonight is bruschetta, followed by a margharita pizza and a crostata – a baked tart – for dessert. We practise saying the words for olive oil, butter, jam, lemon, egg, basil, and flour, among others. Then comes competition time. We’re split down the middle of the table into two teams. Rafaella holds up an ingredient and tells us to raise a hand if we know what it is. The game becomes rowdy and certain members of the class shout out the answers before they’ve raised their hand. A gaggle of school children would have obeyed the rules better than we did.

After learning some Italian it’s on to the cooking. Over the years, the art of cooking and I have had a tumultuous relationship. Aged 15, I managed to fill the house with green smoke while making popcorn. I cooked pizza complete with the polystyrene base and ruined my friend’s baking tray. I put a plastic bowl in the oven only for it to melt. The list goes on and on.

Sarah Johnson pizza
Sarah Johnson: presentation has always been my downfall. Photograph: Sarah Johnson

To my relief, most of the hard work is done for us by Rafaella and Guido. After a demonstration on how to make pizza dough, they hand us each some. We shape it and then spread tinned tomatoes and mozarella cheese on the top. Mine is about as far from a circle as you can get; shaping pizza dough is clearly beyond my expertise, and a friend later asks if I was trying to recreate a map of Germany.

While the pizzas are cooking in the oven, we prepare the crostata. As we spread the dough over the base of a container and spread jam (marmellata in Italian – a false friend) on top, conversation turns to languages. Palumbo asks what everyone thinks about learning another language. A chunk of the class are from other countries including Portugal, Russia and Spain, and language learning is second nature. One lone male voice at the other end of the table booms, “I don’t want to learn a language because I speak English.” Palumbo’s face drops. There is a sharp intake of breath. I struggle to contain myself. His remark is soon forgotten, however, as we start talking about takeaway pizza. The Italian in Palumbo makes a dramatic appearance. She makes the sign of the cross and says, “I don’t recommend any takeaway pizza. It’s not Italian. I like to pass on authentic Italian cuisine. Pizza in America is terrible. It’s not the real thing.” She says of one famous takeaway brand: “I tried it once … It was like chewing gum.” As for a lasagne sandwich, “It’s not possible. It’s blasphemy.”

By now, the atmosphere in the room is buzzing. Everyone’s talking to each other. The girl next to me is a fashion designer and about to move to Rome for work. She and the other girls around us agree that learning a language when you’re doing something is much easier as you associate the words with the image.

The pizza is ready. We tuck in. Even though mine is misshapen, it tastes delicious. The room goes quiet as everyone wolfs down their creation. It’s not long before it’s time to leave. I take my crostata with me to put in the oven at home. The next day, I decide to take it into work with me as a kind gesture. Its “rustic”, as one colleague puts it, appearance is met with laughter. Another colleague likens it to a poppadom. Presentation always was my downfall, but at least it tasted good. Back at the restaurant, everyone’s had a good time, and I’m almost sad to leave.

On the tube home, there are some Italians talking. I smile when I understand a little of what they’re saying. I think to myself that it’s about time I learned another language, and how to cook.

The Guardian

English is not the first language for ONE MILLION pupils, shocking figures have shown

THE number of children in Britain who do not have English as their mother tongue has rocketed to more than a million.

Official figures show as many as 1.1 million pupils have a different first language – up by one third in the past five years.

In some parts of London, three-quarters of youngsters use English as an additional language and in towns such as Slough, Luton and Leicester the number is half.

The Department for Education data has sparked fresh concerns about immigration. Critics say schools and children struggle to cope with the extra numbers.

These figures show the immense pressure placed on public services by uncontrolled immigration

Patrick O’Flynn, Ukip MEP

Almost three in 10 pupils in state primary schools in England are from a minority ethnic background, along with a quarter of those at state secondary schools.

There are now 8.3 million pupils at state schools in England and one sixth do not speak English as a first language.

Ukip MEP Patrick O’Flynn said: “These figures show the immense pressure placed on public services by uncontrolled immigration.

“This highlights the need to ensure migrants make major tax contributions to cover the extra public service costs and also that, if possible, they and their children are already fluent in English.”?

The Department for Education said: “Many schools teach pupils whose first language is not English successfully.

“Schools will continue with their arrangements.”

Daily Express

Britons need to learn languages to compete with the world

BRITAIN’S reputation as a nation of “poor linguists” who do not value foreign languages must change.

french language, mps, students, language, economy, international relations, education, schoolStudents learning French and other languages is key to Britain’s standing in the world[GETTY]

MPs and peers have warned that foreign language skills are as important as science and maths for the country’s future.

An all party parliamentary group has called for action to boost the number of  foreign language speakers.

Knowledge of other cultures is crucial for the economy, international and community relations, defence and security, it says.

Students taking foreign language degrees are at a record low

Without a “step change”, British youngsters would be unable to compete with their peers abroad.

The idea that languages were for the “intellectual or af?uent elite” must be quashed, and the MPs and peers called for all parties to make manifesto commitments to language skills before next year’s election.

Students taking foreign language degrees are at a record low and fewer than one in 10 English 15-year-olds are competent in another language.

Daily Express

Most Europeans can speak multiple languages. UK and Ireland not so much

The Guardian

Today is the European Day of Languages. Within the European Union, there are 23 officially recognised languages. There are also more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, and many non-indigenous languages spoken by migrant communities.

That’s not counting the many immigrants that call Europe home and bring their mother tongues with them. People from over 100 different countries live in Europe.

Just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three.

The five most widely spoken foreign languages remain English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%). Almost everyone in Luxembourg (98%), Latvia (95%), the Netherlands (94%), Malta (93%), Slovenia and Lithuania (92% each), and Sweden (91%) are able to speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongue.

Countries where people are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language are Hungary (65%), Italy (62%), the UK and Portugal (61% in each), and Ireland (60%).

This shows the most spoken second languages in Europe. It excludes both native and official local languages. For example, for a German living in the UK, German (native language) and English (local language) would be excluded.As the data was collected via a Eurobarometer survey, for countries where the differences between languages were marginal, multiple languages have been included.

Three European languages that you didn’t know existed

Globalisation and cultural homogenisation mean that many of the world’s languages are in danger of vanishing. UNESCO has identified 150 European languages which it considers are either vulnerable or endangered. We talk to speakers of these lesser-known languages – from Faroese to Pite Saami.

1. Faroese

Who speaks it: spoken in the Faroe islands – an archipelago and autonomously run region of Denmark.

How many people speak it: 66,000, both in the islands and in Denmark.

How to say “Hello”: Góðan dag.

Did you know? Faroese is derived from Old Norse and preserves more characteristics of that language than any other modern tongue except Icelandic.

Durita Dahl Djurhuus, native speaker of Faroese, lives on Faroe Islands:

“I was born in Denmark in 1972. Both my parents are Faroese but they were studying there at the time. A great many Faroese people get their education abroad and, in the 70s, Denmark was by far the most common place.

“Most people around my family were Faroese and my first language is Faroese, but in childcare in Denmark, they did not understand when I spoke it. I knew both Danish and Faroese, but I hadn’t yet learned to distinguish them. One day, one of the educators scolded me for talking Faroese to another girl and told me to talk Danish. Since I didn’t know which was which, I just stopped talking in the institution. Later, they blamed my mom for me not talking and told us to speak Danish at all times. The period I was not talking I spent figuring out the two languages and everything fell into place soon after. Of course, my parents and I couldn’t stop speaking Faroese.

“As a teenager I moved to the Faroe Islands with my family. Even though I had spent every summer and winter on the Islands I realised at this point that my Faroese was awful. It had a horrible Danish accent and many words that were Faroese when my parents were kids were suddenly not so Faroese anymore. I learned a lot from reading Faroese books and at some point I got both languages right, I think, except for the Faroese spelling. Today I speak Faroese all the time; occasionally Danish and English.

“What makes Faroese so unique is that the population speaking it is so small and the language has been isolated for hundreds of years. Faroese is very close to the Old Norse, so some ancient sounds are preserved in the language just as others are in Icelandic. Every town has its own dialect. The area is incredibly small, only 1,400 km squared, and you really see a big difference when you look at the north and the south.

“Everybody born and living on the Islands speaks Faroese as a first language. It’s not falling out of use, but the small village dialects are definitely dying out, which is probably due to small villages becoming depopulated. A lot of initiatives are being done to prevent this, but it is a tough battle. Young people have also stopped talking the dialect. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s not cool enough.”

Uppsala university
Uppsala university provides summer schools and language classes in Karaim. Photograph: David Naylor /Uppsala university

2. Karaim

Who speaks it: Karaim is spoken by the Karaim people in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

How many people speak it: Karaim is an endangered language with just 60 people known to speak it.

How to say “Hello”: Kiuń jachšy

Did you know? Karaim is spoken mainly in the town of Trakai by a small community living there since the 14th century.

Éva Csató Johanson, professor in Turkic languages at Uppsala University, Sweden:

“In 1992, when I started a documentation project, many scholars regarded Karaim to be an extinct language. Fortunately, I found that there were still a handful of people living mainly in Lithuania who had good competence in this Turkic language. I learned Karaim from these speakers so that I consistently spoke only Karaim with them. My insistence on speaking only Karaim inspired even rusty speakers to use the language more and more.

“Karaim is one of the European Turkic languages. It is a genuine Turkic vernacular and at the same time one that has been accommodated to the communicative needs of its multilingual speakers. Their unique faith, based on the Old Testament, developed around the 9th century in Baghdad. It requires that the believers read the Hebrew Bible in their native language, in this case in Karaim. Thus, the language is indispensable in the religious practice. This has stimulated language revitalisation in post-Soviet times when religion again became the main factor in community life. Karaim Bible translations written in Hebrew script constitute a many centuries old unique cultural heritage. During Soviet times the community could not practice its religion, the community schools were closed down and the Karaim lost its economic integrity. The language ceased to play a crucial role in community life.

“Only the Karaim themselves can decide whether they want the language to survive in some form. Today language revitalisation is a priority on the agenda of the Karaim community. Summer schools organised each year and language course at Uppsala University give valuable academic support to revitalisation efforts.”

Saamis Daily Life in Karasjok, Norway
Reindeer herding is still an active profession and the herders could maybe get away with only speaking Pite Saami. Photograph: Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone

5. Pite Saami

Who speaks it: spoken by the Saami people in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.

How many people speak it: only around 20 speakers left out of a native population of 2,000.

How to say “Hello”: Buorist

Did you know? Pite Saami has no official written language.

Joshua Wilbur, from the University of Freiburg in Germany, is spending time in Swedish Lapland researching the traditional cultures of semi-nomadic reindeer herders and sedentary Pite Saami families:

“My current project focuses on how the Pite Saami language allows you to access culture and traditions, because there are certain words or ways of expressing things that are somehow linked intricately with the culture. The main bulk of my project is creating and archiving the documentation of the language before it’s no longer spoken. There is currently no written standard for Pite Saami, but we are in the process of creating one and hopefully by the end of the year there will be at least a proposal for a written language. People have been writing the language anyway, there just hasn’t really been a standard. There’s nothing like the Oxford Dictionary for Pite Saami.

“I work with about four or five main people who are fluent in Pite Saami, but they are all bilingual. If you only speak Pite Saami then you don’t have much of a chance in society here, you have to be at least bilingual to have an everyday job. Reindeer herding is still an active profession and the herders could maybe get away with only speaking Pite Saami, but not if they come to town for supplies. All the other traditional occupations, such as fishing and farming, aren’t really practiced anymore, so everyone has moved into town. Someone who speaks North Saami might be able to get a job in politics or as a teacher, but for Pite Saami, there aren’t enough teachers because there aren’t enough people. It’s a circular problem.

“Pite Saami has fallen out of use for a combination of reasons. There weren’t that many people that spoke it even 100 years ago so the population itself isn’t particularly big, but in the old days it was also spoken in Norway on the Norwegian side of the border with Sweden, and some state policies, particularly in the mid 20th century, were very colonial. Everyone had to learn to speak Swedish and people were basically forbidden, in some cases, to speak Pite Saami at school. It was really looked down upon. There was also the fact that it was generally accepted that kids should be monolingual, or they wouldn’t manage in school. It’s not the way we look at things now, but there’s a whole generation of speakers who were basically told that they weren’t any good because they were Pite Saami and they shouldn’t be bilingual, so their parents spoke Swedish with them. That had a devastating effect, because there’s basically a language gap in the generations and once that chain is broken, it’s really hard to recover.”

The Guardian

Modern languages A-levels marking schemes ‘penalised most able pupils’

Pupils sitting examinations
Pupils sitting examinations. Ofqual said the confused advice given by four exam boards led to students getting lower grades and may have caused candidates to avoid the subjects. Photograph: David Davies/PA

The marking and setting of modern languages A-levels is to be urgently revised, after an investigation found lapses and failures in the marking of French, Spanish and German that penalised the highest achieving pupils and contributed to the unpopularity of the subjects.

The exams regulator, Ofqual, said the marking schemes and advice given by four exam boards was confused and failed to differentiate between the most able pupils, and so led to students getting lower grades than they may otherwise have received. It also found examples of inconsistent marking that may have led to erratic awarding of grades.

The announcement, which will require changes to be made to the exams by summer 2015, follows joint complaints from universities, teaching unions and independent schools at the way marks were awarded for the most popular modern languages A-levels, with the subjects getting fewer A* grades than many other subjects.

The reputation for lower grades may have caused more able candidates to avoid taking the trio of modern languages, contributing to declines in the numbers of students sitting them at A-level.

Peter Hamilton, headmaster of Haberdashers’ Aske’s boys school, said: “Thanks to the joint persistence of the state and independent schools’ languages associations, Ofqual will now be acting to correct historic injustices that have hugely damaged confidence in these exam grades over recent years.”

This year just 6.6% of candidates were awarded A* in French, compared with 13% for those taking other modern languages such as Italian, Japanese and Mandarin. For Spanish, 6.7% received A* grades, compared with 10.4% of those taking maths.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “It is vital that students, teachers and other users of these qualifications can have confidence in them and know that the results are fair. The changes we’re proposing will do that. Those that should get the higher grades will do so – that’s only fair.”

Ofqual’s reviewers found instances where the reasons for deciding what did or did not constitute a correct answer in the mark scheme were unclear. In one example, Ofqual found that the AQA exam board required candidates to write at least 200 words to answer a question, but failed to give guidance on how to mark answers that fell short.

In another example from the Pearson exam board, Ofqual analysts found markers were expected to distinguish between “clear evidence of extensive and in-depth reading and research” and “clear evidence of in-depth reading and research” in awarded top marks and the next rung down.

In other instances, the requirements for top marks were unrealistically demanding, with only a perfect response qualifying for the highest band of marks.

Hamilton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference academic policy committee, said it was important that the changes were made as soon as possible, since the current exams would be used until 2018, when the reformed modern languages A-levels would be introduced.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR) exam board, said that the improvements were needed, but added: “The recommendations are being fed into the development of new A-levels and we believe that is the right way to make improvements. Any changes made before that should be carefully considered so that students are not disadvantaged and unnecessary risk isn’t introduced into next year’s exams.”

The Guardian

Polyglots and insults: how our European leaders use language

To mark the European Day of Languages we examine how political leaders speak – both at home and abroad.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, president of Russia

Putin languages
Putin once invited a journalist questioning Russia’s tactics in Chechnya to come to Moscow “to be circumcised” and join the rebels. Photograph: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Native tongue: Renowned for his salty vocabulary, rather clipped delivery and uncompromising asides. Unafraid to employ earthy Russian street argot, he once threatened to wipe out Chechen rebels “in the shithouse”, and on another occasion – to press conference gasps and giggles – invited a journalist questioning Russia’s tactics in Chechnya to come to Moscow “to be circumcised” and join the rebels.

Language of diplomacy: Putin, a former KGB agent who spent five years in Dresden, is proud of his fluent German, said to have improved even further in recent years thanks to his friendship with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Though comfortable conducting political discussions one-to-one in German, diplomatic protocol requires the Russian leader to revert to his native language when aides are in attendance to ensure they understand. Putin has also been studying English while president, but it is said that the judo black belt is still wrestling with our vowel sounds: he rarely speaks English in public, and never in a diplomatic setting. He did, however, woo the International Olympic Committee in heavily accented but convincing English when bidding for the winter Olympics in Sochi, and famously crooned the Fats Domino hit Blueberry Hill in English at a charity event.

Mark out of 10: 8

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany

Merkel speech
Merkel’s speech is mild, provincial and unflashy. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Native tongue: Nothing to see here. Merkel is from the old East Germany, but any mild provincial accent is less significant than her controlled, unflashy tone with its slightly extended vowels. Far from experimenting with Putin-style insults, the Christian Democrat leader’s worst linguistic gaffe was her much-mocked description of the internet as “neuland” – “uncharted territory” – in 2013.

Language of diplomacy: As a native of the old DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), Merkel studied Russian rather than English at school, and clearly worked hard: she won prizes for it and visited Moscow as a teenager (purchasing the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine during the trip). She’s still functionally fluent, and is happy to chat to fellow leader Vladimir Putin socially in Russian, though the pair use an interpreter once they move to formal diplomatic conversations to avoid little misunderstandings – that’s how wars start, after all. The German chancellor rarely speaks English publicly, though a part-English speech earlier this year to the UK parliament revealed her to be competent in the language (we would expect no less of the woman known to her electorate as “mutti” – mummy). Merkel has also developed her own trademark body language: a heart-shaped hand position known as the “Merkel Raute” (Merkel rhombus).

Mark out of 10: 7

François Hollande, president of France

Hollande speech
Hollande’s patter is elegant, seductive and occasionally ruthless. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Native tongue: Hollande boasts the elegant, well-educated French that is to be expected of the product of France’s elite graduate schools. His complex personal life also suggests the language of seduction comes naturally, together with that of the ruthless public break-up: “I am making it known that I have put an end to my relationship with [first lady] Valérie Trierweiler,” Hollande told the media when his affair with an actress was exposed.

Language of diplomacy: Hollande speaks working English but with a pronounced accent: as he admits himself, “I speak English like a Frenchman”. However, it’s not all modest self-mockery: shortly before election to his current post, Hollande claimed he spoke English “more fluently than the former president” (it was true: Nicolas Sarkozy belongs to the Clouseau school of English pronunciation). Despite his abilities, Hollande also maintains that “A French president has to speak French” – it’s never a good idea to let those Anglo cultural imperialists get above themselves, after all. What’s more, English can subvert one’s best attempts at flattery: a congratulatory letter from Hollande to Obama on the latter’s election use the sign-off “friendly” – an unfortunately over-literal translation of the French “amicalement”.

Mark out of 10: 4

Team UK

Coalition speech languages
David Cameron’s speech shows him as the toff that he is. And Nick Clegg is fluent in five languages, but still can’t persuade anyone to listen to him. Photograph: PA

Native tongue: Old Etonian Cameron speaks fluent posh (though posh isn’t as posh as it used to be), while Ed Miliband has followed Tony Blair’s example and injected a touch of voter-wooing Estuary into his north London middle class tones. However, even the man-of-the-people glottal stops can’t disguise the Labour leader’s adenoidal delivery. Deputy PM Nick Clegg, a toff like Cameron but – despite his name – a foreign one, deploys a regionless middle class tone that at least has the benefit of sounding authentic.

Language of diplomacy: The Lib Dems may be preparing to haemorrhage seats at Westminster, but at least their leader is top of the language class. Clegg, whose mother is Dutch and wife Spanish, speaks five languages: Dutch, German, French and Spanish, as well as English. Unsurprisingly as the leader of a third (and shrinking) party, he milks his talents: he gave an interview in Dutch to Dutch TV ahead of the 2010 election, and can happily negotiate in German. Aides say he switches with ease between his languages, speaking by phone to wife Miriam in Spanish, a diplomat in German and then his mum in Dutch, all in the same car journey. The prime minister, in contrast, boasts O-level French, but gives no indications of ever using it (unlike Blair, who, having worked in a French bar as a student, was reasonably fluent). Miliband says everyone in the UK should speak English to boost cohesion: a good plan since he shows no signs of speaking anything else.

Mark out of 10: Clegg 10, Cameron and Miliband, 1

The Guardian