My 13-year-old daughter has just discovered noun cases in German. What had previously seemed a friendly language (“the man” is der Mann) suddenly pulls off the mask to reveal an insanely involved grammar: den Mann, dem Mann, des Mannes. And because schools are perverse, she is starting this journey exactly at the age when a child’s inborn language-learning ability nosedives. Years of pain lie ahead. I have spent my life wrestling with languages. I’m British but went to school in the Netherlands, studied German and history at university and, in 2002, moved myself and my bad school French to Paris. I’m not gifted at languages — at university, I saw fellow students who could dissolve the most convoluted German sentence into its grammatical parts at a glance. Still, I have enough experience to help my children formulate their strategies. In this era of instant translation apps and global English, how much time should they devote to learning languages? After all, every minute spent puzzl...

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