“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language” – H. Jackson Brown Jr
Whilst I can’t pretend to know much about H. Jackson Brown Jr other than what is shown in wikipedia, this quote of his sums up what my post is about. A big part of being an expat is learning to adapt to the country that is your host, and perhaps nothing enables someone to fit in more than if you can communicate in the local language.
However, in common with a significant portion of my fellow British countrymen and women (some 60%), I can only speak English, and whilst I never had the university education of many of my peers, it’s my inability to speak other languages that has been the biggest source of frustration throughout my working life.
Yes, some languages are no doubt harder to learn than others as the Cypriot road sign above suggests, but I haven’t been able to learn any other – I studied French and Spanish to ‘O’ Level at school and can say a handful of words in 4 or 5 other languages, but to this day, I am unable to hold a conversation in any language other than English, although in reality it’s never held me back.
So for me, therein lies the problem; having English as your mother-tongue gives you some degree of expectation that everyone else will understand you and respond accordingly, and when they don’t, it comes as something of a surprise! (“What do you mean, you don’t speak English??!!”)
Yes, life is made easy for us native English speakers, again just look at that road sign above, those thoughtful Cypriots have helped us enormously by adding English to their native Greek – I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many road signs in England that include Greek translations!
So my lack of linguistic skill is something that has always made me feel quite humble – my work has taken me to dozens of countries across the globe, many of which do not have English as their first or even second language, but regardless, I’ve never failed to have the necessary conversations, or exchange the required documents. However, when you’re working in a supposed third world country, and your colleagues gossip in a local dialect, conduct their business in the language of their former colonial masters, and then have to concentrate on my English when I deign to speak to them, yes it can be a very humbling experience.
But let’s come closer to home – Europe perhaps, as it’s such a hot topic these days. For a few years, I had the pleasure of living in The Netherlands – it’s a beautiful country, and Amsterdam is a most wonderful, cosmopolitan city.
Some interesting facts about Holland and the Dutch*:
- The Wilhelmus is the oldest national anthem in the world
- Dutch men are the tallest in the world (as a shorty, that one did not escape me!)
- Gin was invented by the Dutch (one for Mrs E!)
- Some 90% of Dutch nationals speak English as a second language
- More than 50% (also?) speak German – hence a very large number speak at least 3 languages
The use of English is so prominent in much of Holland, that one Dutch man told me that if you meet someone who claims to be from Holland, and they can’t speak English, then they’re not Dutch!
This total adoption of English made it very difficult, unnecessary even, for me to learn Dutch – even English or American Films and TV shows were broadcast in English, but with Dutch subtitles, this is very different to what you would experience in say Germany or France. In fact, most of the Dutch words I learnt, were from reading the subtitles!
What about Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality? I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Geneva, Zurich, Basel and Bern for work related visits, and although I’ve always found English widely spoken, French, or varieties of German (or both, as I found in Basel) are the main languages.
A quick search on google shows that the populations of the Scandinavian countries have similar language skills to those of the Dutch – and having spent time in Sweden some years back, I can testify to this. After several weeks of working in Gothenburg and Stockholm, I managed to return to my native land with but two phrases tack så mycket (thank you), and precis (exactly). Oh, yes and Skol!
In fact I can order a beer in multiple languages, needs must I guess! My favourite beer phrase comes from working in Jakarta Indonesia, where Bahasa is the national language – when in a bar, try saying ‘Dua Bintang lagi’ – it means ‘two more beers’ (Bintang is a brand of local beer), however, don’t get the first round, as it wouldn’t make grammatical sense, or indeed, don’t be in a party of more than two!
These days I spend most of my time in the Middle East, where of course Arabic takes centre stage – I have managed to learn a few words, I can greet people, say my pleases and thank you’s, and even count to 10 reading arabic numerals – not bad after some 7 years eh?
“Slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe” is a recent quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission; and whilst I don’t find myself agreeing with that, it is true that we are in a world that is changing rapidly, and I sincerely believe that future generations of my fellow Brits will need to improve on their collective language skills if we as a nation are to compete on the global stage.
So if you have the ability to speak, read and write in more than one language, then treasure that skill, try not to lose it, and know that I envy you.
An interesting article from Huffington Post about the Dutch speaking English here