Thursday, 3 October 2013

Mind your language

We native English speakers have a great deal to be thankful for.  We can travel and, to a large extent, not bother learning other languages.  With so many English-speaking countries in the world, and with so many of their citizens travelling to Europe, Europeans have had to learn English to sell their goods and services to the arriving tourists.  And the Europeans have, on the whole, done a great job, achieving a reasonable fluency in our language.  We native English speakers are lucky indeed that we can travel there, not bother to ask 'Do you speak English?', but just launch into English and expect a response!

Perhaps other world travel destinations are the same.  I don't know.  My experience here is of Europe.  European hotels, restaurant wait staff, railway station clerks, and tourist information officers all speak quite good English.  (Information on signs and in restaurant menus is often available in English.). But Europeans are not only catering to the world's native English speakers.  Millions of arriving tourists come from China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East or Asian countries who insist on using English.  Traditionally, the French objected to the spread of English.  But even the French now know they can't object to a Chinese person speaking English because the retort would surely be "How would you like to speak to me in Chinese?" 

And because people all over Europe have learned English so well - they tend to have many years studying the language at school - they then use this skill to go on holidays themselves.  Thus, French people will use English to check into their Greek hotel.  An Italian tourist in Vienna will order beer in English.  A Spaniard will ask for directions in English in Germany.  And an Austrian couple in Venice will sell their unexpired three-day travel pass at a discounted price to foreign tourists using English.

There are today many more Eastern Europeans travelling than in the past.  Many are from Russia.  The Russians have a reputation of having little English if any, and who often insist on using Russian.  Trouble is, who else speaks Russian?  With so many Europeans having a working knowledge of English, an assumption is that one can communicate with any visiting foreigner in that language.  But it's not always the case.  I felt very sorry for the Polish couple who couldn't figure out how to use the Paris Metro, and who were being told how it operates by a well-meaning young French woman in English.  The Poles had blank faces.

Of course, the levels of English fluency in Europe are very annoying for people who have studied a European language and would like to practise it.  You ask a question in a local language, and back comes a response in English!  You immediately think 'So, is my German rubbish?'  I'm one of those people.  But the good news for people like me is that the main tourist trail is really only so thick.  Sometimes, if you go just a few kilometres back, you enter the 'local' world, where only the local language is spoken.  Here, you find out your German is not rubbish after all.

So, who in Europe speaks the best English?  My personal definition of being 'absolutely fluent' in a language is to be completely relaxed speaking it.  In the past, I found the Danes to be incredibly good.  But we didn't visit Denmark on this trip.  Our experience now tells us that the Dutch have the greatest fluency.  Bilingualism seems even to be a part of Dutch identity.  You can blurt out a question in English to bus drivers, police officers, shop assistants, and any person in the street.  If you're in Amsterdam, you may as well be in London.  But the country that deserves a prize is surely Greece.  Greeks will be just as helpful as the Dutch, but the prize should go to Greece because their tongue is nothing like English and their alphabet is utterly unlike ours.  And if you're having a donkey ride on the Greek Island of Santorini, and the donkey stops, just yell in English "Go!".  And the donkey will continue.  A fellow Chinese rider yelled "Go!" In Chinese, but the donkey didn't move.

So, if you can speak English and you're planning a trip to Europe, don't panic.  You'll be understood virtually everywhere you go.  Even Greek donkeys know that English is the international language.

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