Why you should really, really learn a language (and keep it)

Random tower by the lakesideAh, learning languages, the unspoken fear of many an English person. Most of them can’t see the point, thinking that everyone speaks English wherever they’re going anywhere – which is true in approximately zero countries. Even when you go to a foreign country (where they’re all taught English from a very young age in addition to their mother tongue and possibly another one or two languages), and even when you go to major cities like Paris where people do speak a lot of English – they have to in order to deal with all the tourists – you will find people who don’t speak English well and who will either communicate with you in broken English or pass you on to one of their colleagues. I know this; I’ve overheard far too many conversations between waiters and cashiers where they’re scrabbling to find someone who speaks English well enough to carry on a basic conversation. Difficulty with learning languages is not limited to English people.

Anyway, I’ll get onto the main point. When you go to a foreign country, surprise surprise, English probably won’t be a first language for many of the people you meet – if a spoken language at all. Even if it is, you should probably still bother.

“Why?” I hear you ask. “If they all speak English anyway there’s no point in me wasting my time on a language I can’t pronounce.”

Well, firstly, people are much nicer to you when you bother to speak their language. It may be clichéd, but it’s true; in French-speaking countries, people are much more courteous to me when I speak French than to my parents or friends, who don’t speak a word of the language. It makes sense, particularly if you’re in the service industry: most likely you have to deal with people who take you for granted all day with relatively little pay, and then on top of that you have to deal with people who can’t even be bothered to speak your language.

Pretty inside of towerSecondly, as I’ve mentioned far too frequently over the course of this post, not everyone in the country you happen to be going to for a week speaks English. This means that if you don’t know their language and they don’t know yours, you’re both a bit stuck – unless you can rely on a translator.

Let me elaborate. On Sunday and Monday, I went on a trip to CERN, on the Franco-Swiss border, and we spent an awful lot of time in Geneva. (My apologies to any people who live there or like it, but apart from the pretty Old Town and the university I would probably give Geneva a miss, but that’s because I’m used to cities as big and loud as London.) Of course, everyone in Geneva speaks French. Out of our group of twenty-something students and teachers, only three people had any reasonable French, which equates to one translator for about 6 or 7 other people.

Lion statue by the lakesideI don’t know how other groups had it, but I know that I ended up translating, asking for tables, and ordering food (amongst doing other things) for my group of friends and acquaintances. Now, I don’t mind speaking French – in fact I enjoy it – but I did get a bit tired of having to interpret for about 7 other people. A part of me wanted to say “please learn some goddamn French already and do this yourself”, because ordering food and tables does not involve particularly high-level language skills or specialised vocabulary. It doesn’t even involve much actual language learning, because even if you were taught by a crappy teacher (as most language students in England are) about a million and one tourist guides and listening aids will help you to pick up just enough of the language to get by as a tourist without having staff and translators glare at you.

So why not? You broaden your horizons, you get better service, and you can order your own damn food instead of relying on one person all the time.

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