It is only a matter of time before our various smart devices act as universal translators, and language schools either go out of business entirely, or become a luxury product, a sort of finishing school.
One the first victims of such a development, however, would be the phrasebook. My brother has a phrasebook for use by English officers in India, which translates into Urdu such useful gobbits as where can I get a boy to carry my elephant gun?; a friend of his has an English-Greek phrasebook from the early nineteenth century which provides a translation for ho there, shepherd boy!.
It is tempting to think of phrasebooks as a relatively modern phenomenon, but on display at the moment in an exhibition of medieval manuscripts in the French language at the University Library is the Manières de language (1396), a manuscript composed at Bury St. Edmunds (about 30 miles east of Cambridge) containing model dialogues for travellers on subjects as diverse as trading with merchants, getting a room at the inn, and haggling over prices – not unlike a business English course, as it happens, although there are also sections on getting a child to stop crying and insulting your lover, neither of which I drag out all that often.
The exhibition also displays Thomas d’Angleterre’s Roman de Tristan, the earliest surviving account of the Tristan legend, and the Lancelot-Grail, a manuscript which once belonged to the Knights Templar retelling the search for the Holy Grail, on public view for the first time. There is also a compendium of historical, devotional, scientific and miscellaneous knowledge which alludes to the roundness of the Earth and the force of gravity. Entrance, as ever, is free.