On a state visit to Morocco this weekend, Meghan Markle made a small yet important gesture
One of the more cringeworthy aspects of bumping into other Brits abroad is our collective failure to speak the local language.
Research by the British Council confirms that our poor language skills are more than just a stereotype. A massive 62% of Brits can’t speak another language, compared to the 56% European Union average who speak at least one foreign language.
But Meghan Markle is not about to follow the poorly-formed habits of her adopted homeland.
On a visit to a girls’ boarding school in Morocco this weekend, the Duchess of Sussex was clearly at ease speaking to pupils in French; one of the main languages of the Islamic kingdom, alongside Arabic and Berber.
The royal met students at the school, which provides education to girls in the rural Atlas mountains region, and asked them questions such as, “Qu’est ce que tu veux être quand tu quittes l’école?” (What do you want to do when you leave school?) and “Vous voulez aller à l’université?” (Do you want to go to university?).
Markle’s husband, Prince Harry, who is accompanying her on the three-day tour, was more unsure. As Hello! magazine reports, he did not try to parle français, instead asking pupils: “Do you speak English? I don’t speak much French.”
Even with an Eton education behind him, Harry’s reticence in speaking the local language is not unusual. He joins the 25% of Brits who feel nervous about speaking another language abroad, and 40% who are embarrassed about their language skills.
A further 36% of Brits assume everyone will speak English abroad anyway, and, depressingly, 19% choose a holiday destination based on the fact they won’t have to speak a foreign language.
Amid these damning statistics, Markle’s willingness to speak French stands out. Learning to speak the language of the place you’re travelling to is hardly a huge ask - especially in an age of online courses and widespread apps - and yet, the reality is that most English-speaking people don’t bother.
Markle, along with 28% of people in the EU, speaks at least two foreign languages. The Duchess is fluent in Spanish and recently revealed that she was “trying to get better at my French over the last year”, having learnt the language for eight years prior.
The royal could easily have relied on aides to translate for her. But, like the Queen, who once delivered a 10-minute speech in French on a visit to Quebec, she is willing to put herself out there. And this alone speaks volumes.
In a deeply divided world, Markle recognises language as a means of breaking down walls and connecting with different cultures.
More than just a courtesy, attempting to speak another language - however well - demonstrates an enthusiasm for connection above division.
As René Koglbauer, president for the Association for Language Learning, tells the BBC: “At times of fear of ‘otherness’, it is crucial to emphasise the importance of language learning and its unique contribution to broadening the minds of our youngsters, their awareness of cultural differences and their critical appraisal of misconceptions.”
Whether she’s writing messages of empowerment to sex workers or encouraging schoolgirls in their own language in a country where 70% of women are illiterate, Markle understands the potency of good communication.
It may only be a small-scale gesture, but by learning to speak French, the Duchess is bridging the “otherness” gap: and for that, she should be applauded.