“Oh don’t worry, everybody there can speak English”
It’s something I’ve heard a lot; with regards to every non-English-speaking country I’ve had the privilege to visit. It’s a benefit I’ve become accustomed to and indeed taken for granted since I was a little girl. Oh, sure, I try to learn the polite phrases, the “merci”’s and “ciao”’s, the “tack”’s and “gutentag”’s, but ultimately, I’ve never been required to really make the effort if I didn’t want to, because I’m lucky that my first language is spoken almost globally.
In a world where the British Empire is not easily forgotten, and the colonies of our plunderous past reach the far corners of the globe, I’ve blithely accepted that almost anyone I speak to in my travels will be able to recognise the words and intonations of my speech. And in the event of my finding somebody who cannot at least tell me “no English”, I can cast around for the next available person to point me along my merry way.
It’s a huge advantage, being from an English-speaking background, there’s no denying it. And in many ways it extends beyond travel: think music, think Hollywood. My friend was telling me a story of how – on a hilariously eventful trip to Edinburgh (before we knew one another) – she heard a song she recognised from her youth in Denmark – a Danish pop song playing in the infamous Hive. She’d been so thrilled – her friends led the dancing for a whole song! It hadn’t occurred to me then how lucky I am to have the majority of the music I listen to predominantly in my own language. I had taken for granted the place of lyrics in my own experience of music. In every country I’ve visited, they’ve had their own music, of course, but more often than not they are also inundated with English and American mainstream music too. How strange, to be going about your daily business, thinking in Danish, or French, or Portuguese… and have those thoughts interrupted by another language in a shop, or a café.
From what my friends tell me, unless you’re particularly proficient at speaking in your second or third (or fourth or fifth) language, it takes a little adjustment to switch between the two. Your mind lags a bit in one language whilst it’s transitioning. How bizzare then, to be constantly distracted by the lyrics of a song! Does that happen? Or is it much the same as when I listen to French music (for I cannot speak French), I just tune out the lyrics and enjoy the song for its melody or the singer’s dulcet tones?
With film, the bulk of movies that are shown in cinemas are straight out of Hollywood. As a UK-dweller I know that very few of the films I watch are produced outside of that bubble. I go to my local arthouse cinema if I want to watch an independent film, or a foreign-language film, but on the whole, it’s American-English, or British-English, and its stars are recognisable to the majority of people because they are propagated throughout the world. Does it become frustrating to see your own country so widely ignored on the world stage?
And yet, there is something I envy about my friends from other countries: in that they represent one of the best upsides to being from a non-English-speaking country, and they can all speak multiple languages. At the very least they have their mother tongue, and are essentially fluent in English. In most cases, this proficiency in learning language has meant that they speak more than two languages aside from their own. I have friends who speak Danish, German, French, English and Spanish. And I’m constantly in awe of them! How wonderful it must be to gain a deeper understanding of another culture through the use of their language!
One friend (who speaks German and English fluently) has moved to Stockholm, and whilst she’s learning Swedish, she says, she isn’t there yet. For her, the importance of learning the language goes beyond being able to go about her daily routine, she also believes it holds the key to deeper and more meaningful conversations. For whilst the Scandinavians are notoriously good at speaking English, she wonders sometimes whether the subtle language barrier can be exposed when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of her speech – the sarcasm and dark humour which I’ve come to appreciate seem to be lost on those new friends she is making in her new city.
Imagine that: the concept of one element of your personality being lost. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps when trying to communicate with people in a foreign city I might only relate to people on a superficial level. In spite of my various travels, I’ve always fallen back on my English and taken care to explain those gaps in between… but in doing so have been forced to oversimplify my meaning, making my jokes contrived or just plain un-funny.
To be able to communicate with somebody in their own language, or to exchange conversation in tandem, as so many of my clever international friends can do, would be an invigorating change to my way of thinking and of interacting with new people. Perhaps this seems like common sense to you, the reader, but to me it feels like a revelation! Having dropped my French lessons at the age of 14, I have had only romantic sentiments regarding further languages; to live in Paris, and drink coffee, and stroll along boulevards, which in hindsight seems rather silly. Now I see it as an opportunity to develop further thoughts, to learn things I couldn’t learn from English, and to consequently reciprocate that awareness of another culture in the way that my friends have done for me. It’s a resolution I’ve been making time and time again, but now, dear reader, you are here to bear witness: the French lessons start in June!