Everyone Speaks English, Don’t They?

March 27, 2014
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The British like to live in different countries, principally to escape our less than impressive weather. But when others choose to come to the UK (for reasons other than the weather), we often complain hypocritically that they don’t learn the language. Hypocritically, because there are so many Brits living abroad who have never learnt more than the absolute basics of the language in their chosen country – and sometimes not even that. There’s no need to learn another language, they insist. Because everyone speaks English, don’t they?

Everyone Speaks English

Actually, they don’t. I’ve met many people in Spain (and elsewhere) who know very little English. And there are very good reasons to learn the language of your host country. Courtesy and practicality are chief among them.

Everyone Speaks English

I once watched a programme about Brits in Spain, which included an interview with a woman who must have lived there for several years. Her inability to communicate in even basic terms in Spanish was embarrassing. One cannot be sure if she ever moaned about immigrants in the UK not speaking English, but sadly it wouldn’t be surprising if she did. And what if you need to see a doctor or call a plumber? Many doctors speak some English, but it’s unlikely that plumbers do. You can’t really explain with gestures over the phone that water is pouring through your ceiling.

The recent decision of the Dutch to insist on immigrants passing a language test has caused some outrage, as if it’s cheeky of a country to expect immigrants to speak the native tongue of their new home. Time magazine interviewed a woman who had lived in Holland for 16 years (not English), who complained that she was too old and sick to learn Dutch. If she hadn’t bothered to learn the language after sixteen years, I venture to suggest the problem was not her age or health…

The Brits, of course, would be wholly in favor of a law compelling foreign residents to learn English. But what we demand, we must also be prepared to give. It’s really not that difficult to learn basic Spanish (or Catalan if you live in Barcelona). It will facilitate daily interactions and keep our hosts happy. Japanese or Korean might be more of a challenge. But try. People will appreciate the effort and it opens up so much to you. You’ll make mistakes for sure. But that’s a whole other article…

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