“Sure, they all speak English anyway”

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.


16 thoughts on ““Sure, they all speak English anyway”

  1. madhava says:

    Hit the nail spot on Ian . Speakers of Irish being bilingual most definitely take advantage from the fact the the prospect to become multilingual would be a much easier task given already the ability to be deferential with language skills . The speakers of Ulster Scots would struggle as this language is based upon rules fairly in line with their native English meaning that if they did acquire another language they would still technically be only bilingual and not multilingual .

    • Well, put another way, people who claim to speak Ulster Scots often don’t, or at least can’t in formal contexts, because they *assume* the rules are the same as in English.

      So, for example, they may look up “ask” in an English-Scots dictionary and see “speir”, and then assume that “speir” is used the same way as “ask” is. Firstly, it doesn’t – “speir” means more “consult”, “inquire as to”, but *not* “demand”, “bid” or “request”; secondly, you “speir *efter*” something, not “!speir for”.

      This problem does exist with learners of Irish too, of course, as it is common to all language learning. The point is, the more acquainted you become with a different language, the easier it is to spot things which you cannot assume to be the same.

  2. Philosiful says:

    Interesting post.

    As a freshman on the job market I’ve quickly noticed that languages are one of the most important skills you can have. And to be clear, nobody here cares about English. English is standard, every Belgian or Polak is assumed to know it. But, like you said, this doesn’t mean that native English shouldn’t know other languages. Quite the opposite!

    The past year I was living and studying in Poland. I was surprised how well everybody spoke English! Even elder people (who never learned any English at school) did their best to understand and speak a few sentences. So it was really surprised when I was on a holiday by car through Germany and noticed that the majority of the people couldn’t (or at least didn’t) say a word in English!

  3. The Listener says:

    Ian your logic is precise and clear. The problem for, British Isles, English speakers to a great extent is that they are isolated on islands. On at least, northern continental Europe the web and flow of internationalism is constant. The Scandanavians know that not many others in the world speak their languages so English from a young age is an imperative. It is not unsurprising in Holland to find Dutch talking sometimes to eachother in English for the very reasons stated, easy access to British TV and a history of involvement with the UK. There are many German holiday homes on the coast in Holland. The language generally used when addressing the Dutch is English for, I suspect, more recent historical reasons!

    I remember being involved several years ago with a work force of Germans, Dutch, Belgians and British vehicle repairers. They all happily conversed in English and background radio music was essentially British. Finally to really understand a language there is a requirement for immersion in the language culture. Apart from English speaking expats in Spain, and some in France, it is not easy, on a regular basis, to get in the car to cross a language border for a spot of shopping, or the annual holiday. How do you deal with that Ian?

    • It is not just a geographical isolation, but also a linguistic one. As I mentioned, there is no language close enough to English to be instantly 50%+ intelligible (at least in writing) – where German speakers have Dutch and Spanish speakers have Italian etc. Therefore, the perception is that we have further to go before we even start.

      There are of course ways to overcome it. The Erasmus Exchange Programme was where I first really did it – yet take-up of that programme was lower in the UK than any other EU country; and lower in NI than any other UK region. How depressing!

      Without taking up such opportunities, English speakers are doomed to their isolation – cut off from many of the social and technological advances going on around the world (yes, many of these come from America, but many don’t – how often do we quote the “American Social Model” or “Economic Model” with wonder compared to the “Nordic Social Model” or the “German Training Scheme Model”?!)

      • The Listener says:

        Some good blogs. I think that at least two of them could be quoted and interpreted in support of my contention that you need ease of immersion in a language to make any progress in living, and undestanding the language, and that is less likely to be available to pour young people than those living in mainland Europe.

        In the past certainly before the fall of Communism the world stopped at the East West border, now the world is interesting further East, where there are still areas where German is understood. German is the language of an industrial power house, so I ought to have learnt it, or Spanish, instead of French! However if we accept that few of our young people will ever be immersed in foreign languages, perhaps Mandarin is the future key language for our school children, followed by Spanish???

  4. Great post, thanks Ian. Just a couple of thoughts from me.

    It would be great if we could all speak a second (or third or fourth) language, I wouldn’t disagree with that. Certainly, if I ever found myself living in another country where English wasn’t the first language, I would definitely work to learn the local language in order to get by day-to-day. Not only is it polite, it’s sensible! But this is about business, not moving house!

    I’ll speak a little from my personal experience. I’ve spent the last 4 years working on a European Commission development programme which has had me working with people all across Europe. In the last 12 months alone I’ve been in Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, Madrid, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Munich and Rome. All in meetings with Europeans from a myriad more countries. In my experience working in multi-cultural environments “they” do all speak English! And only occasionally do my foreign partners speak a third language in addition – and then these tend to be folk who live/lived near borders, e.g. Touousians speaking Spanish/Basque/Catalan. In European business (in my experience) English is without doubt the prima lingua. My personal dilemma is therefore this: I’d love to learn a second language, which language (or language family) do I choose?

    I could argue that it’s a job enough to learn “European English” as I’m introduced to a world of new English words such as my personal favourite “planification”! A particular favourite of my French colleagues!

    Your point on culture is also absolutely correct. Again, from experience, over time I have got to learn how other cultures think through understanding their use of language, however I’ve gained most of that from observing their use of the English language exactly as you hint at above.

    Perhaps my experience is peculiar to my sector. I agree for sure, that if I was dealing solely with a German customer/supplier then the language would be 100x more useful. But in an interconnected multi-national Europe, where does one start?

    Needless to say, I think the conversation is wholly different when we start to think about non-European peoples – Middle/Far east for example. There, I agree that the language is more important. Which leads me to conclude with the observation of a Spanish colleague – in 200 years time, with the intervening rise of the East and of South America, all we will need is Mandarin and Spanish! Maybe that’s where we should turn our focus?

    • I forgot to say… Bon weekend!

    • To be honest, it’s not popular to say it but I think German is the key language.

      Firstly, it’s actually the easiest to learn if you bin the current text books and learn it properly (I’ve advocated an entirely different method in past posts), because it is fundamentally the same as English.

      Secondly, it is widespread in engineering, technology and philosophy – to an extent no other language (aside from English) can reasonably match. Even at the Roe Valley Park Hotel, where I stayed this week, a note on the hot tank attached to the bath and sink was in fact in German (declaring that it had passed testing by the German Technical Institute, TUV).

      German is spoken as a first language by more European citizens than any other language; and as a second language by 27% (second only to English).

      Thirdly, linked to these, my own personal experience is that, frankly, it is just the most useful. German just comes up more often than any other language.

      As I’ve explained in other posts too, I don’t quite buy the “inevitable rise of China” line (far less South America). Remember, thirty years ago we were all supposed to be learning Japanese…

      But, as I’ve pointed out, all this concern about which language to learn is merely an excuse for not learning any. It doesn’t really matter which one you learn – once you’ve got one, you’ll soon pick a few more up.

      The harsh reality is by adulthood it is too late. We should be starting in the first year of primary school, in truth.

      • Well, if the German government continues its bid for part of my employer, dann muss ich lernen! 🙂

        Another interesting one to add to your point 4- I managed to embarrass myself whilst hosting a group of (predominantly French speaking) European visitors. At the lunch break I “invited” them to join us downstairs in the canteen for lunch. By which I meant “come down and get your lunch” but they understood “I’ll buy you all lunch”. It seems the word “invite” is one to watch as my squeezed expenses budget will testify!

      • factual says:

        Fourthly, it helps with the lines in Wagner and Mahler songs. I’ve got German so it helps with my appreciation of these musical pieces.

  5. factual says:

    To be honest, in my professional and personal life, I’ve found French more useful, and would have liked to have had Spanish. In that, I use these most when travelling. But then it depends which countries you go to.

  6. Tuairisceoir says:

    Interesting. In my experience in Europe (Italy), English is pretty much useless.

    However in other countries it is widely understood, wiping out any employment advantage – sure everyone speaks English – bit deal – but can you offer a service in Norwegian? well, emm, no.

    I am working on a piece about the Netherlands at the moment and a widespread view of English speaking expats that the Dutch are unfriendly.

    English speakers in the Netherlands often don’t bother to learn Dutch – I understand they make more of an effort in Belgium.

    The Dutch generally speak English and speak it well, however, it seems if you want to move beyond pleasantries and get an invite or two – you need to learn Dutch. There willingness to learn English is often misinterpreted as them not preferring to speak Dutch.

    I live in the Gaeltacht where everyone is more than happy to speak English to people who have moved into the area. But institutions / events are defending linguistically, leading to accusations that English speakers are ‘frozen out’ of the GAA, education etc. A similar situation to the Dutch one.


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