Today I’d like to share with you a short article I read recently. It reminded me of something I wrote not too long ago, about how we English speakers aren’t always the best at using the local language when we’re on holiday abroad. You can read the article here, which is based on a survey of British holidaymakers. It was specifically about ordering in restaurants on holiday, but I think it says a lot about how English speakers approach other languages in general. Here are some of the main statistics:
- 56% point at menus in restaurants to avoid pronouncing words in the local language
- 45% assume all locals will speak English
- 42% speak English more slowly and loudly
- 37% try to use at least a few words of the local language while on holiday
- 29% are too scared to try, however
- 15% would only eat in British or fast-food restaurants on holiday to avoid having to pronounce words in another language. And my favourite…
- 15% have tried speaking English in a foreign accent
I’m sorry, but I think that’s hilarious! I can’t help but smile at the image of a middle-aged Englishman in a restaurant on the Costa del Sol awkwardly attempting a Spanish accent as he orders his paella. I’m also curious at what the logic is behind doing that. Do they think that non-English speakers are more used to hearing English in their own accent? That when the tourists aren’t around, they all sit at home speaking Eenglish in an Espanish accent?
All joking aside though, it’s also kind of pathetic and sad. And, as an English speaker myself, understandable. Right now I’m in the Starbuck’s at Liège Guillemins train station. Even though all the product names are in English, and they get quite an international mix coming through, I did everything in French, right down to asking for a muffin aux myrtilles (though I said muffin in my normal accent). Now that’s not too hard for me, because I have a respectable level of French. But I still feel a slight fear that they’ll ask me something I don’t understand, and if I’m with a French speaker, I’ll often linguistically hide behind their shoulder. It’s very hard to get comfortable enough with a second or third language to lose that fear. So I know how scary it can feel to be in a restaurant in another country when you don’t speak their language at all.
Still though, it is quite sad, especially for those 15% who won’t even try foreign food. You can see the results of that in the numerous tacky restaurants in resorts in Spain and Portugal which offer Sunday roast with gravy and live English Premier League matches (or, lest you think I’m picking on my neighbours, the “Irish” pubs which offer Gaelic Football and Hurling, and an authentic dank, dark atmosphere to ensure you never have to be exposed to the sun on your visit to the Costa del Sol). Of course some people simply don’t want to try new food while on holiday, but it’s sad to think there are people who want to try delicious new food, but force themselves to settle for somewhere they can safely point to an overlit photo of a steak (my travel-eating rule – never eat anywhere that has photos of the food outside).
As the article points out though, this is part of a larger problem, whereby English-speaking countries lack speakers of the other major world languages. And with business increasingly globalised, this might put us at a disadvantage. I know that in Ireland, multinational companies based there struggle to find Irish people to fill international customer-service jobs. In the UK, the same problem is compounded by the looming Brexit, which could affect the country’s international standing even more. So if you’re an English speaker who’s going on holiday soon, try to get over your fear of ordering in a foreign restaurant: your country’s future might be at stake. And please god, don’t speak English in a foreign accent!