“Uno de… Those, Please? Numero Forty-Three?”

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!

16 thoughts on ““Uno de… Those, Please? Numero Forty-Three?”

  1. What do you call a person who speaks three languages: Trilingual
    What do you call a person who speaks two languages: Bilingual
    What do you call a person who speaks one language: American.

    You know, I’ve studied a little Spanish, and four years of German. I can understand a little German if the other person speaks slowly. I can read some, too. But the truth is, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that’s the problem for all English speakers. Even for the Irish and British, even though were part of Europe, we’re still quite isolated, culturally and literally, and rely on our neighbours speaking English.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha, this is interesting – trying to speak English in a local accent! Might I mention being Indian I know the accent that’s touted as Indian-English in Hollywood movies and English sitcoms, but we have different Indian-English accents for different parts of India. Owing to a different mother tongue for almost every state 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine in such a large country there’s a real variety of accents, which we might not recognise as being Indian. It reminds me of when I read a review of a Western movie with Kevin Costnee and Michael Gambon a few years ago. Gambon played an Irish character with a Dublin accent. His accent was good, probably because he was born there and lived there for a few years. But the American review said his accent was bad, as the Dublin accent is quite different from the stereotypical accents people are used to hearing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ohh yes I wondered how a non-stereotypical but very Indian accent would be received by an audience used to the ‘Indian-English’ while reading your post! I guess we can expect similar reactions 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think it’s confined to English speakers. A few years ago, my (Korean) wife, her (Korean) best friend and I joined a Korean tour group of the South Island of New Zealand. We had lunch and dinner at Korean restaurants, except for the lunch we had at a Japanese restaurant. Even for breakfast, they brought their own supplies of instant noodles and kimchi rather than have the breakfast supplied by the hotels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting to see it works the other way too. I’ve actually seen similar in Ireland with Mediterranean language students, understandably turning their noses up at frozen pizza and boiled potatoes. What they really couldn’t get over was how so many people here eat dinner at 6pm!


  4. English is my second language; and I have to admit that, as a teenager, I was petrified of speaking it in front of anyone, for fear of mispronouncing words, or sounding silly.

    I’m usually also embarrassed to speak in French, because I know my accent is awful, but this past January, I surprised myself with all the words and phrases I can remember when I’m just focused on saying what I want to say, instead of how I sound.

    Something I love about Europe, though, is that in some of the major cities, restaurants, laundromats, and pharmacies have signs in several languages.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So many of us are guilty of not even trying when on holiday – myself included! I tend to default to learning the native phrases for ‘Do you speak English?’ and ‘Sorry, I’m English/I don’t understand, I’m English’. But I do always like to order a dish in the language it’s written in (although at times my pronunciations probably leave something to be desired..!) and I only point at what I’m ordering if it helps with clarity. I think that learning the general courtesies of a foreign language (please/thank you/sorry/hello/goodbye) is the least we should all do before going away.

    On a related note, I often find that if I’m talking to someone who speaks English but has a very strong foreign accent, I will accidentally start mimicking their accent back! A little embarrassing, but usually I catch myself doing it before too much damage is done… I’m not sure why this happens, maybe subconsciously I feel that I’d be on similar ground with the other person if I speak their version of English? I do have a fascination for accents and like to try them out for my own general pleasure, so that might not help me either. Either way, it’s kind of a funny situation!

    Oh, and I’m totally with you about not going to restaurants that have pictures of their food outside – whether on holiday OR at home. Those places only spell out one word for me: unappealing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I do the same thing with non-native speakers too: I think you’re right, it must be something to do with being on the same level or relating to them. I’ve had whole conversations where I’ve asked myself afterwards: “Was I just talking to them in a really strong accent!?”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am learning Spanish at the moment but I still get terrified to even say thank you in Spanish. To be fair, last time I did the waiter corrected me which put me off even more. But then I’m the kind of person that makes my dad order my food in restaurants rather than speak for myself in England! So it’s not really surprising.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s nothing more annoying than being corrected when the mistake wasn’t important, and the corrector understood you despite it! It’s such a knock to your confidence when you’re already feeling vulnerable just by speaking. French speakers do that occasionally to me if I use the wrong gender pronoun. It drives me crazy, but thankfully it doesn’t happen too often.

      Liked by 1 person

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