The holiday season is upon us and many of us will be passing through our local airport over the next few weeks and months. When you do spare a thought for those people who aren’t off to relax on a beach or sip cocktails by a pool. That’s right your fellow traveller might actually be going to work! Of course, if you are on plane headed to a top beach resort, then the person sat next to you is less likely to have brought their briefcase but if you’re off for a city break you might spot them. I recently came back from a long weekend in Prague. Whilst I was soaking up the last couple of hours of holiday magazine reading and contemplating splashing out the last of my holiday spends on duty free, the person sat next to me had her laptop out and was rifling through her conference agenda for the next few days.
In fact, more and more of us are travelling abroad for work nowadays. As it turned out my neighbour was Czech, although she spoke perfect English thanks to the time she had spent in the USA in her teens. She was off to a conference in London where she would be meeting some French colleagues, so she would be spending the week speaking French with them, apart from when she gave her presentation at the conference in English of course. Naturally intrigued by her multilingual working life, I asked how she had picked up these language skills and found a job that used them. It turns out that apart from with her Czech colleagues she rarely uses her mother tongue at work. For the most part she speaks English as she deals a lot with clients and colleagues in USA and UK. However, the company she works for has its main office in Paris. “Of course, I therefore decided I should learn French.” It struck me how natural this seemed to her, that if you were going to work for a company based in France, even with an excellent knowledge of English which surely would be enough to communicate with colleagues in an international company, the best thing to do was to learn French.
Just days later on my return I was confronted with the complete opposite thought process. Someone who I met through a friend was telling me how they would be moving to Germany, initially for 6 months but hopefully for longer to set up a new office. “You should speak to Jenny about learning German before you go” my friend said as she introduced us. “I hadn’t thought about learning German” was the reply “doesn’t everyone in Germany speak English?” This is a bit of a red rag to a bull for me but I calmly replied that yes a lot of people do, but as he’ll be living and working there didn’t he feel he should also at least have a go at speaking their language. I like to think my comments might have struck some sort of a chord, but I’m still waiting for the phone call about German lessons.
It’s such a contrast in attitudes, and of course the friend of a friend isn’t necessarily typical of all English native speakers. However, it is certainly more common for English people not to feel the need to learn another language in the way that our European counterparts might. Of course, this is largely down to the fact that a lot of people do speak English as a second language and that generally us Brits can travel and work abroad without struggling too much to be understood. However, should this be an excuse to go and live in another country and not learn the language? What opportunities and experiences both personal and professional are we missing out on? Well, £48bn worth according to the government who estimate that this is the annual cost of the language skills deficit in the UK. However, on a more personal level, would my fellow passenger on the plane have enjoyed spending time with her colleagues at the conference as much if she hadn’t been able to speak to them in their own language? Will our friend who is moving to Germany get fed up with not being able to understand signs, menus, TV, radio, posters etc. and not being able to make friends without checking their English is good enough first? I suppose only time will tell.