I’m a 23-year-old guy from Wales who’s currently living in Germany. Being the first of three children to leave home, I’m often ordered by my mother to come back to visit as often as I can. Whilst it’s always fun to be back home, at some point in the week my mother, overflowing with maternal pride, will say “Chris, come here, I want to introduce you to Mr. Standardbrit. Mr. Standardbrit, this is my son. He lives in Germany, you know!”
What follows next is always the same. It’s an oft-repeated script taken from the Big Book of British Polite Conversation. Mr. Standardbritwill inevitably ask “Oh! What’s it like there?” and I will inevitably answer with another line from the Book: “quite nice”. The second question that is always asked, however – “Do you speak German then?” – I always answer with a very definite “of course”.
“Why 'of course'?” Mr. Standardbrit will ask. “Doesn’t everyone speak English over there anyway?”
Firstly, after two years of teaching English here, I feel qualified to say with some certainty that no, most German people do not speak English. The average German twenty-something could certainly communicate far better in English than his British counterpart could in German, but there’s a big difference between communicating and speaking.
Secondly, I think “wait a sec; weren’t you saying five minutes ago what a disgrace it is that these 'bloody foreigners' come to our country without speaking a word of English and expect to have everything translated for them at the taxpayers’ expense?” (and isn’t that a copy of the Daily Mail you have tucked under your arm there?)
Sadly, it seems many British people have a hideous double-standard when it comes to language. Any immigrants coming into Britain are expected to be fluent in English as soon as they step off the boat, but when it comes to 'expats' (because British people are never immigrants) jetting off to a new life in Spain or France, learning the language is way down on the list – if it’s even on there at all.
I suppose it comes from the fact that English is a (not 'the'!) world language. As Mr. Standardbrit pointed out, don’t all those foreign-types speak English? In that case, why should we bother to learn their language?
Our government seems to agree, if the state of our language education is anything to go by – although you’re required to study a language for 18 months, you can drop it at the age of 14, meaning you won’t get a qualification in that particular subject. Even if a student does decide to take French or German, oral exams are being scrapped on the laughable premise that they’re “too stressful”. (I’m sure anyone who’s struggled to order bread at a bakery in another country with a queue of native speakers behind them will tell you what a “stressful language situation” really is!)
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Every story has a hero, and ours is Lord Dearing. In 2006 he wrote a report commissioned by the government, in which he suggested that languages should be taught in primary schools, so that pupils will find it much easier to get a good level by the time they sit their exams at the end of their school career.
Now all we have to do is convince the Daily Mail-reading masses that children learning a foreign language isn’t 'bloody Europe forcing its way onto this hallowèd isle' (shouted through gritted teeth with plenty of spittle), and we might lose our reputation as a one-language population. After all, as the old joke goes: “what do you call a person that speaks three languages? Trilingual. A person that speaks two languages? Bilingual. A person that speaks one language? British.”