The “alarming” decrease in the number of candidates at A-Level in modern languages, and corresponding likelihood that entire areas of the UK will be left without a University with a languages department, was met with frustration by some educationalists. But the public response, more or less, was the line I hate to hear: “Sure, they all speak English anyway…”
Ahem. That’s lazy. And in any case, well, no they don’t!
Firstly, even if “they” do speak English, it is a difficulty not to speak the other language in any transaction. For example, Scandinavians and Lowlanders are well equated not just with the English language but also with English (and British) culture; yet the English are not well equated with Scandinavian, Dutch or Flemish culture. Thus, in any trade negotiation or deal, the Scandinavians/Lowlanders have the advantage, being familiar with both languages and both cultures where the English speaker they are dealing with is familiar with only one.
Secondly, even if “they” do speak English, they have a further advantage. It is a lot easier for already bilingual people to become multilingual. Not only do Scandinavians and Lowlanders have exposure to English is school (from age 6-8), on TV (where programmes are subtitled, not dubbed) or in music, but they are then better able to watch for linguistic intricacies and broad cultural differences when dealing with other cultures – in other words, because they are familiar with another language and culture from the very start, they do not take every aspect of their culture as “normal”. The largely monolingual British are at a disadvantage, thinking essentially that the world revolves around them and that anything out of their cultural norm is to be at best ignored – and ignorance breeds bad things, not good things!
Thirdly, well, “they” often don’t speak English. My own family will confirm that on holiday in Germany this summer, they found it quite difficult, with it being a struggle to do even the basics (day-to-day ordering of food, asking for things, dealing with bureaucracy, reading signs, etc) – it was all much less “English-language-friendly” than they had assumed. Yes, at higher levels of business and administration a reasonable standard English is common, but even there not necessarily the norm – Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t speak good English; we could put that down to her being an Easterner, but her (Westerner) predecessor Gerhard Schroeder didn’t speak it at all.
Fourthly, and here’s the really important bit, even when it appears “they” speak English, sometimes they don’t. Let me give two examples from German-speaking Europe.
- a friend in Austria once asked me, on a visit to Slovenia, “How are you in Slovenien?” – to an English listener, that means “How is your Slovenian (language); but what he meant was “How are you finding Slovenia?” [he had given “Wie geht’s dir” its usual (but in this context inappropriate) translation of “How are you” and then got the name of the country wrong]; and
- a Berlin hotelier once told an English-speaking friend that he could “drive to Alexanderplatz” – he thought this meant that he would be best using the car to get there, but in fact it meant he should take the train [the German “fahren” means “travel”, including “drive” in a car and “ride” (i.e. “be a passenger”) in a train, and she had used the former English word to mean the latter]
So I say to English speakers: it is not at all unusual for you to think your Continental colleague can speak English, when in fact often they mean something different, occasionally even entirely the opposite, from what you have understood them to mean. And you don’t notice it.
The truth is English speakers’ refusal to learn other languages is understandable before you give it proper scrutiny, but once scrutinised it is plainly inexcusable and to their detriment – as it makes them not just monolingual, but also monocultural. In a globalised world where trade and international understanding are everything, that does not bode well.