NO matter the nationality, one thing was consistent: polite pity. “Oh, from Britain?” The emphasis on the “oh”, every time, with the tone I imagine the Queen used when she learned Meghan Markle was American. “How nice.”

After two weeks in South America conversing with a wide range of fellow European travellers, I’ve never been more sheepish when answering the question, “Where do you live?”

The saving grace was my Scottish accent. To a one, all my conversational companions pointed out – kindly, to buck me up – that Scotland had not voted for Brexit.

At a tango class in Buenos Aires my Portuguese dance partner gave quite the impassioned lecture on independence. He could not comprehend leaving the EU.

“You must think we’re idiots,” I said, as the tango teacher instructed the class to overcome any awkwardness by taking our partners in a close embrace.

“You are idiots,” he replied, holding me not unsympathetically.

A young couple from Brussels, a Swiss husband and wife, an Italian teacher, French grandparents, German backpackers, my sure-footed Portuguese. They were all of one mind and, worse, that one mind was spoken in English.

The Swiss wife, in fact, was able to express her views in Italian, French, German, English and Spanish. My dance partner translated all the instructions from the Spanish for me while also having a decent amount of French.

I used to have a decent amount of French. I took it right through high school and on to night classes at the Alliance Française Glasgow.

On my flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza I was seated next to the aforementioned French couple. Listening to them talk I thought, “You should be able to make conversation”. My internal monologue becoming more of an internal lambasting, I decided just to plunge in with something manageable. I asked them the time.

“Quelle heure est-il?” I droned with the certain knowledge the answer would be meaningless, given numbers were never my strong suit. “Ten past one,” I was handed back, in English. Sacré bleu.

There’s never good news about Britain and foreign language learning, is there? It’s almost always that the numbers of students – both school and university – are dropping, Higher qualifications are under threat.

Languages are praised as vital ways of meeting new people, learning about new cultures and discovering new literature, none of which seem that tantalising to your average teenager. We are unlike, say, the Nordic countries where school children are immersed in English. English is necessary for many as a lingua franca, while we don’t have any such urgent compulsion.

One of my dearest friends is Swedish and her English is impeccable. She’s also great at Danish and, before we went to Peru in 2016, quickly picked up enough Spanish to get by. I had three phrases: “Tenemos un problema,” learned from an Apollo 13 poster in my Standard Grade French classroom; and “Donde están los baños” and “No me molestes,” both learned while alone in Cuba.

The embarrassing lack of language learning is an issue politicians are well alive to. In 2018 the Scottish Government announced a £3 million funding injection for its 1+2 language policy, which sets out that children should start learning two foreign languages in primary school.

Yet the policy is hampered by the fact there are not enough qualified staff across the primary school sector to teach them.

A national debate rages about Gaelic, which, when you try to explain it to anyone from a multi-language country, comes across as parochial in the extreme.

If you will rejoin me next to the French couple on the plane: there is part of the problem. Even when one tries to make an effort, the return address is usually in English. My French skills have dwindled to nothing because I have no opportunity to speak French, just as I can’t remember the Australian Sign Language I grew up using because you’re unlikely to meet many Auslan users.

If my adult French classes were anything to go by, we learn another language in adulthood because we’re looking to holiday or own property abroad or we fall in love with a non-English speaker.

Otherwise, what’s the point of a skill that needs regular nourishment to maintain?

But multilingualism comes with advantages in business and trade; advantages in understanding other cultures in a meaningful way. As we try to remove ourselves from our nearest neighbours, communicators who can build bridges are vital for our future.

Even a quick "Hola" or "Gracias" was met with approval as an attempt to reach across a divide. Now, in this climate, language learning is as much an attempt to show willing, to appear outward-looking.

I’ve downloaded a French app and will seek out ways to practise. As Europe looks at us in pity, every “Bonjour” will be a small act of defiance against the isolationist urges leading us towards disaster.