The Curse of The English Speaker

Self-importance is a mystifying quality of the English speaker, and they show it by talking over everyone in their vicinity. When you’re convinced of the supremacy of your language, you’re an expert in a field, and those around you are mere amateurs. The irony being that it is the “amateurs” who are the real experts. They hide amongst the English speakers with two or three or, sometimes, five languages up their sleeves. And, inevitably, they speak English better than us. The Scandinavian countries are so embarrassingly good that it’s as if they have acquired, it for free, through osmosis.

English-speakers are notorious for failing to learn other languages because of the global dominance of their native tongue, but that should not be used as an excuse. At school, we learned languages by rote.

“Wie komme ich am Besten zum Bahnhof, bitte?” we would parrot – without the German teacher knowing or caring if we were aware which part of that sentence meant what. “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” am I right?!

The result was that most people could ask quite fluently how they got to the train station – which was required for the exam – but couldn’t for the life of them, if they found themselves lost in a German city, request directions instead to the post office, or supermarket. It was always only the train station, as if we were partaking in some great re-run of The Great Escape.

The “Wie komme Ich” part of the sentence might just as well have meant “station” as the “Bahnhof” bit. No-one spoke German in any useful way. Yet everyone passed.

English speakers are always known as being terrible at languages. A regularly used excuse, as if our brains are somehow hard wired in a different way to our peers across the world, making us incapable of learning to speak a foreign tongue. I won’t deny that it has come in handy on many a travel when you can bypass the whole giving-it-a-go fiasco and just speak your own language (I can hear the groan of “Ugh, bloody English”). To be fair it is a myth generally supported outside of the UK too – well with the battiness of Brexit can you blame them for thinking that way?!

“You don’t need to, everyone speaks English – it’s the international language,” my German friends often say to me. They cannot understand why I would want to spend time learning something that to them is not a pleasure, but a necessity. Like most Germans they are convinced that their English – which is completely fluent – is terrible. They work hard in their spare time to improve it, truly believing that they cannot speak it well enough to be considered competent. It should be added that most of them also speak a couple of other languages to a level at which any English speaker would be proud – but they discount that as irrelevant as they are not at the same level as a native speaker.

I love languages. I like to claim that I speak some Swedish, some German and, when I’m feeling really confident (or have had a beer too many), even a little French. I always stress “to an intermediate level” (probably Pre – intermediate, especially with German), well enough to get by when I’m visiting my girlfriend’s parents, but not enough to carry on an in-depth conversation outside of basic small talk. My German friends would probably argue that I didn’t speak them at all – especially if they applied the same standards by which they judge their own ability. Yet because I am British, they cut me unwarranted slack.

While those particular languages have proved useful on occasion, that basic knowledge of speaking in a foreign tongue has sparked a desire to learn more. If I travel, I try to learn at least a basic “please”, “thank you” and “hello” in the local language. I should strive for more.

As native English speakers, there is no doubt that we have the luxury of not having to learn a foreign language. A lot of international business is conducted in English (I live in Frankfurt and work in English), while it is often the common language when an international group gets together in any circumstances, whether there are any native English speakers among them or not.

Yet as a native speaker of English, that makes me uncomfortable – I would almost rather speak any other language apart from English in that situation.

The dominance of English throughout the world gives us an unpleasant arrogance. We are rarely at the linguistic disadvantage in any international situation. Most English-speaking people probably have no idea what that feels like.

And this is why we need to make sure that our children learn a language. It is not because that language may end up being specifically useful to them in later life – or perhaps it will, who knows?! Maybe everyone in my German class circa 1998 has found themselves saved by the fact that they can find the train station in Frankfurt. No! It is because we need to teach them that it is not acceptable that we do not try in other people’s languages – or that we should expect everyone to speak ours. We should strive to learn the beauty of other people’s languages and, as a result, truly learn the beauty of their culture.