Wednesday, August 23, 2017

When language is not a barrier

Recently the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed that English was losing its importance. However, for anyone travelling around the world, and indeed across Europe, it is clear that English is almost a necessity.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told a conference in Italy on the EU that "English is losing importance in Europe".

Amid tensions with the UK over looming Brexit negotiations, he said he was delivering his speech in French.

"Slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe and also because France has an election," he said, explaining his choice of language.

Meanwhile he called the UK decision to leave the EU "a tragedy".

Britain's leaving the EU may well be a tragedy, but Britain's influence around the world cannot be denied, especially when it comes to language.

While Mandarin Chinese is the second most widely spoken language after English, it is mainly of importance within mainland China itself.

English, on the other hand is spoken by people all around the world.

English is of course the international language when it comes to aviation in particular and to some extent for maritime communications.

But English is often the second language after the local language.

Go to China and, while having some fluency in Mandarin Chinese is obviously useful, one will find many people also speak some degree of English.

But the importance of English is even more marked when travelling around Europe.

Of course every country and its people are proud of their own language. But the fallback, in order to communicate with nationals from other countries better, is very often English.

One marked example was a coversation heard outside a bar in central Portugal. "So you're from Italy? But you're not members of the Mafia.." joked some young Portuguese as they chatted to some Italian girls over a beer.

Inside the bar the conversation between a Portuguese guy, two Belgians and a Brit was almost entirely conducted in English.

Despite the reputation that the French have for arrogantly refusing to speak anything other than their mother tongue many are surprisingly fluent in English. Moreover they are often very accommodating and willing to chat at length in English whilst just as willing to let you practice one's French.

Of course it has to be said that not everyone in mainland Europe, or indeed around the world, speak English. But that said a great deal more foreigners speak English than Britons speak any foreign language.

"You have it too easy," says one Belgium who lives and works in Portugal. She was herself fluent in Dutch, French, Portuguese and English, as well as her native language of Flemish.

And of course she was right. Many Brits either arrogantly expect people to speak English or simply cannot even be bothered to make the effort to learn something of the language whare they are visiting.

It might be a little too much to expect from the British that they become fluent in several languages. But for regular visitors to countries on the continent or elsewhere in the world it is surely just a matter of being polite to at least attempt to say something in the local language.

While not fluent in Mandarin Chinese by any means I can survive fairly indepedently whilst travelling in China. But even one off visitors should at least attempt to say 谢谢 [xie xie - thank-you].

Having only visited Spain once, and never having stopped by Portugal, both languages were alien to me.

Nonetheless I made the effort to learn some key words and such attempts are always greeted with delight.

Jean-Claude Juncker is wrong to say English is losing its importance. But he might have been right to suggest that it is just as important to make an effort to learn and speak more than just English.

tvnewswatch, Aragon, Spain