THE first time I visited France I was amazed by how well I coped with the language.

Granted, I wasn’t there to give talks at a UN Summit, but as 19-year-old tourist with a basic command of French, I was able to tackle the important stuff and order tea, coffee, wine and baguettes.

I’d gone travelling with a friend and we were able to use our rudimentary language skills to ask vital questions such as where the toilets were, and how to find the bus and railway stations.

At school neither of us paid much attention in French class and we both scraped through our O-levels - me at the second attempt, having failed the first time - but we gleaned sufficient knowledge to manage and were quite proud of ourselves.

We had a good teacher, but even so, I estimate that around 80 per cent of what we learned in class, in particular the grammar, did not remain in our brains for longer than the duration of the lesson. And I would say this applied to the majority of us.

So, in this respect, I didn’t baulk on hearing news of Government reforms of language teaching, which will see French, German and Spanish GCSEs dumbed down to ‘phrasebook’ learning

Teenagers in England will be expected to learn up to 1,700 frequently used words in a curriculum overhaul.

It’s not a bad proposal, as for most of us foreign language numbskulls, all we want is the ability to be able to order egg and chips when abroad and faced with a menu we don’t understand.

But there are those among us who want more, those who genuinely love learning languages and want to go on and study them at university. How will this work for them? Quite simply, it won’t.

You can’t hope to pass A-level French by remaining at the ‘le chat est dans la maison’ stage, and any hopes of studying languages at university would fly right out of the window.

Rather than dumb down language teaching, which in the state system does not usually begin until age 11, why not start teaching languages earlier?

We lag behind the rest of Europe in learning languages. When my Austrian pen friend came to visit as a teenager she and her friend had perfect English, having begun learning it in pre-school. It was the same when, a few years ago, two German girls came to stay at our home as part of a school exchange. Aged 14, they had been learning English almost since birth and had a better command of it than some of my daughters’ British friends.

At a young age pupils are far less self-conscious about speaking a foreign language in class, in front of their peers. At secondary school, attempting a French or German accent in front of your sniggering mates is embarrassing. At my school most of us ended up mumbling through our fingers a clumsy Yorkshire version of “Bonjour madame, comment ca va?”

Our infant brains would be far more receptive to a new language.

Ministers hope the reforms will boost the take-up of languages in schools. I very much doubt that. We Brits are known for being determined monoglots - when English is spoken so widely across the world , we see no real reason to learn another tongue.

If I’m honest my teenage self would probably have managed quite well in France using nothing but English, as so many Europeans are bilingual. Germany, the Netherlands, Spain - you can usually get by speaking English.

If language teaching is set for an overhaul maybe the powers that be should think about the actual languages being taught and their use in modern society. In just a few decades China has gone from a far-off, underdeveloped land to a global superpower with a finger in every pie.

For any ambitious kids who want to get ahead, forget French, German and Spanish - lessons in Mandarin would surely open more than a few doors.