I heard a story that in a foreign language class, the students were told that someone who speaks multiple languages is called a ‘polyglot’. When one enquired what you call a person who speaks only one language, the teacher replied; ‘English’
I’m in the car with two Italian friends driving from Milan to Alba. Marina is fluent in English – she was married to an Englishman and lived in Hull for seven years. She uses regional colloquialisms like ‘ta’. When she says these words, they have a Yorkshire twang amidst her otherwise gentle Italian-accent English. Too cute for words.
Andrea is driving and his English is very good. The sat nav is in English. ‘Don’t worry, we are not expecting you to remember the route for the return journey,’ he laughs, ‘It’s just that in Italian, it takes so long to give the direction that by then, you’ve missed it.’
They’re not joking. Marina and Andrea then give me examples of traffic directions in English and Italian and the difference is tens of metres, even at a modest speed.
A notice taped in the whited-out window of an empty shop declares, ‘This shop has moved’. ‘Why,’ I asked the taxi driver, ‘is that written in English?’
We are making our way through Bucharest to my hotel and in the course of the ride from the airport to the city centre – my first view of Romania – I’ve already noticed a lot of signage in English. Billboards ads and shop signs have smatterings of English and that I can understand. Bucharest is a tempting location for UK stag and hen parties looking for something cheaper and more exotic than Bournemouth, and these businesses are looking to bag the low-fare airline explorers’ booty. But a handwritten notice indicating a local shop relocation, why would this be written in English?
In December 1989, the Romanians threw out their Soviet invaders and started implementing some changes. Among these, the Russian language was dropped from the primary school curriculum and replaced with English. In Bucharest, I did not find anyone under the age of 35 who did not speak it competently, if not fluently.
‘The economy is no good, all the young people want to leave here,’ my driver explains, ‘to find jobs in London or Berlin. These are the two favourite destinations.’
‘They’ll be need to learn German for Berlin,’ I think, but do not say out loud. Just as well because I’d have betrayed my ignorance, as I was to discover four months later.
I’m in Berlin for a long weekend and English is rampant from bus stop posters selling Jameson’s whiskey, to skate shops and tattoo parlors. Walk into any cafe and the staff start the conversation in English before they know your nationality and even when they do, and you’re not, they stay in English anyway. Like the Scandinavians do.
It’s not as if they can tell by looking at me. My Danish friend, Bo, tells me it is just the same for him. When we goes into a cafe in his hometown, Copenhagen, the staff speak to him in English. He replies in his native Danish but they continue to speak to him in English anyway.
In a Berlin jazz bar, Club Bassy, there’s live Blues music and an audience largely under the age of 30. The walls are decorated with the guts of a pinball machine and a Vespa is hooked to the ceiling. ‘It’s like being back in the Student Union bar,’ observes Rosie, my fellow English traveller.
The band addresses the audience in English and the audience talk amongst themselves in English, even though they are native Germans. British ex-pat, Katie, tells me, ‘They just do, because it’s cool and the old folks don’t know what they are saying.’
I’ve met a young, backpacking couple on a walking tour in Hanoi; Jacob and Mirtemaaij. We are talking about the English-speaking Germans over lunch and Mirte, a Dutch national with excellent English, tells me she learned German in preparation for taking up a job in Berlin. ‘I need not have bothered,’ she says, ‘everyone there my age speaks English as their first choice.’
English is becoming the lingua franca of planet Earth and I won’t be surprised if it happens within my lifetime
The two days prior I’ve spent on a river cruise tour of Halong Bay. In my tour party there’s an Australian mum and her two teenage children, a couple from Malaysia, a party of four from Italy, a large party from Spain, a couple of Brits honeymooning, a party from Columbia plus me and my native Vietnamese companion. Our tour guide, Frank, is Vietnamese and he conducts the whole tour in English and nothing else.
If you poll first language, then about half of my tour group are native Spanish speakers. Poll for their second language and all are English speakers.
The sun never sets on the English language
English is becoming the lingua franca of planet Earth and I won’t be surprised if it happens within my lifetime. It is not going to replace anyone’s native, language but like the alternative vote system they used in Auf Wiedersehen Pet to decide what colour to paint the hut, it will come in number one on account of being everyone’s second choice.
The internet has sealed the deal. Every page on the internet is written in English. Oh it might be Mandarin Chinese on the client-side but server-side it is written in English. Every programming language in every device that computes, does it in English. Every ‘selector’, ‘function’, ‘argument’, ‘operation’, every ‘script’ – all is in English.
A brief word
But long before computers, the colonial legacy of the Europeans scattered their languages around the globe. If New York were still New Amsterdam then perhaps Dutch would be where English is now. In truth, Spanish has been the only rival to English for geographic coverage but it is trailing and that might not be down to the technology or political history but something rather simpler.
‘English is an easy language to learn,’ says my friend and polyglot, Geny. A native of Argentina and fluent in Italian and French as well as English, she explains, ‘it is more forgiving, you only need to be close and the English understand you. In Spanish, you get it a little wrong and we don’t have clue what you’re talking about.’
But there’s something else Geny reveals in confessional tone; ‘When I go home to visit my family and I have to speak Spanish for a month, I’m exhausted after a week – it’s hard work. Why can’t they all speak English?’