Illustration by Sabrina Fernandez

About six months have passed since I bid farewell to the sunny spires of Oxford and set out on my year abroad. Compared to my classmates’ itineraries exploring Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, or even the Caribbean, my destination – France – seemed far less of an adventure. 

Only a few dozen miles of sea separate the English coastline from our continental neighbours, and coincidence had it that I would move to Annecy: a city I knew so well, I had previously reported on it for The Oxford Blue.  

Just how different, then, could actually living here be?

From culture to cuisine and even current affairs, half a year of everyday life away from home has shown just how great the subtle (or not-so-subtle) nuances between us Brits and our French frenemies can be.

And it is with these startling differences in mind that I bring you the pitch for my new column, Comment from the Continent. Somewhere between a travel notebook and a year abroad survival guide, consider these instalments to be my impressions on European life’s hidden secrets.

What better way to kick things off than with the height of Gen-Z self-expression: music tastes.

Here’s a thirty-second thought experiment to try at home. Apart from ‘Mi Gente’, ‘Gangnam Style’, and ‘Alors on danse’ (thank you TikTok), list a dozen or so famous tracks written in a language other than English.

If you’re stalling around number seven and don’t happen to be a member of the BTS ARMY, it wouldn’t come as a surprise; the last time we saw a foreign language number one single in the UK was five long years ago. Then again, at least Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi didn’t have to contend with face masks and vaccine passports when they flipped a reggaetón-flavoured Despacito back in 2017

This brings me to my point. For whilst francophone (i.e. French speaking) artists most certainly do hold considerable esteem and Spotify time here in France, the same deference to musical foreignness that plagues main-stream British culture, does not exist on the far side of the Channel. 

Just take a glance at the top artists in France for 2021.

This is, of course, not a new revelation – but in the current climate, the effect is no less striking. Under the direction of President Emmanuel Macron, Paris has made it official government policy to upend the influence of English at national and international levels alike – all whilst the sentiment of national pride in France comes in high for Western Europe.

Add to this example similar phenomena in the spheres of literature, theatre, TV, and cinema, and one can’t help but wonder what gives. For me, it really comes down to a question of mindset.

Thus far, I’ve spent the best part of my year abroad here in France working as a languages assistant with the British Council. And for all the barrages of flying pencil cases and scrap pieces of paper launched by budding French scholars, one thing has never failed to astonish me: just how interested even young pupils are in foreign cultures. From the English-speaking world to Spain and Latin America as well as Germany, Italy, and Portugal, the general international awareness that a standard Year 9 class in France possesses would put some British adults to shame.

The argument we like to hide behind is that English is an international tongue. If young French people want a say in the business and artistic worlds, there logically is no other option than to learn one’s English irregular verbs. This may well be true, but the desire I’ve seen clearly comes from somewhere other than necessity. Why else would Year 7 pupils – those at the very start of the language-learning journey – have a genuine passion to talk about their favourite London rappers or which Harry Potter film they prefer? Their understanding without subtitles may be limited, but this does little to dampen their curiosity.

Rather than merely applauding our continental neighbours’ efforts to interact with foreign cultures, perhaps we Brits might want to go a step further and take a leaf out of their book. Because whilst government cuts to foreign languages in our schools might have us think otherwise, a Global Britain cannot exist in English form alone.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.