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I have just come back from a week's holiday in Paris. Before anyone asks, I had a wonderful time. Now, we all know that the French, and the Parisians in particular, are remarkable in their rudeness to tourists and their inability or reluctance to speak English to them, right? Wrong. I had no problem getting directions, buying things in shops or making myself understood to waiters and Metro ticket sellers. I have encountered many instances of kindness and helpfulness coupled with good humour in the slightly ridiculous situation in which two people who don't speak each other's language perforce find themselves attempting to communicate.

So what's so special about me (nothing, I assure you, it was a rhetorical question)? Why are Italians, Greeks, Egyptians and Parisians so forthcoming with me while being so reticent with others? Well, I don't know, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that I almost never ask them if they speak English. I mean, why the hell should they? I wouldn't dream of asking them if they speak Hebrew, or Russian, would I?

Yes, I know that English is the international language of business and science. American movies are everyhwere, CNN is endemic, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, when you go to another country, you have to expect them to do things differently there. Like, for example, talk. In my travels abroad, and most particularly in this last week in Paris, I have heard people say "Do you speak English" instead of "Hello". I mean, how rude is that? No wonder people are rude back!

I find that the denizens of touristy places are so used to this unthinking doltishness that at the merest glimpse of an attempt to speak their language they spread out in a radiant grin and proceed to treat me with the benevolent condescention of one who is talking to a precocious and eager child.

So, if you want to get the best out of your time in a foreign country, wherever you yourself come from, learn a few basic phrases. Please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, that kind of thing. Hello and goodbye will also serve you well. If you can stretch your vocabulary to "you'll have to excuse me, I don't speak (insert language here) very well", you'll be treated like a king. A nifty trick is to find out if there are any local holidays on during your visit, and pick up the traditional greeting (the equivalent of the English "merry Christmas" or "happy Thanksgiving", for example). While in Greece I found out what the Greek for "happy Easter" was, and it got me bowed in and out of hotels and restaurants. People are just so appreciative of any recognition you give to their local culture and customs.

And for god's sake, don't ask them if they speak English. They will treat you with all the contempt such an idiotic question deserves.


I've recently added another tool to my Polite Tourist repertoire: where the phrase "do you speak English?" would normally go in a conversation, I say instead - in English, and after having greeted them in their own language - "I'm so sorry, but I don't speak X". This usually achieves the exact same result, inasmuch as they respond by letting me know if they speak English or not, but with wider smiles and nicer feelings all round!

I’m a 23-year-old guy from Wales who’s currently living in Germany. Being the first of three children to leave home, I’m often ordered by my mother to come back to visit as often as I can. Whilst it’s always fun to be back home, at some point in the week my mother, overflowing with maternal pride, will say “Chris, come here, I want to introduce you to Mr. Standardbrit. Mr. Standardbrit, this is my son. He lives in Germany, you know!”

What follows next is always the same. It’s an oft-repeated script taken from the Big Book of British Polite Conversation. Mr. Standardbritwill inevitably ask “Oh! What’s it like there?” and I will inevitably answer with another line from the Book: “quite nice”. The second question that is always asked, however – “Do you speak German then?” – I always answer with a very definite “of course”.

“Why 'of course'?” Mr. Standardbrit will ask. “Doesn’t everyone speak English over there anyway?”

Firstly, after two years of teaching English here, I feel qualified to say with some certainty that no, most German people do not speak English. The average German twenty-something could certainly communicate far better in English than his British counterpart could in German, but there’s a big difference between communicating and speaking.

Secondly, I think “wait a sec; weren’t you saying five minutes ago what a disgrace it is that these 'bloody foreigners' come to our country without speaking a word of English and expect to have everything translated for them at the taxpayers’ expense?” (and isn’t that a copy of the Daily Mail you have tucked under your arm there?)

Sadly, it seems many British people have a hideous double-standard when it comes to language. Any immigrants coming into Britain are expected to be fluent in English as soon as they step off the boat, but when it comes to 'expats' (because British people are never immigrants) jetting off to a new life in Spain or France, learning the language is way down on the list – if it’s even on there at all.

I suppose it comes from the fact that English is a (not 'the'!) world language. As Mr. Standardbrit pointed out, don’t all those foreign-types speak English? In that case, why should we bother to learn their language?

Our government seems to agree, if the state of our language education is anything to go by – although you’re required to study a language for 18 months, you can drop it at the age of 14, meaning you won’t get a qualification in that particular subject. Even if a student does decide to take French or German, oral exams are being scrapped on the laughable premise that they’re “too stressful”. (I’m sure anyone who’s struggled to order bread at a bakery in another country with a queue of native speakers behind them will tell you what a “stressful language situation” really is!)

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Every story has a hero, and ours is Lord Dearing. In 2006 he wrote a report commissioned by the government, in which he suggested that languages should be taught in primary schools, so that pupils will find it much easier to get a good level by the time they sit their exams at the end of their school career.

Now all we have to do is convince the Daily Mail-reading masses that children learning a foreign language isn’t 'bloody Europe forcing its way onto this hallowèd isle' (shouted through gritted teeth with plenty of spittle), and we might lose our reputation as a one-language population. After all, as the old joke goes: “what do you call a person that speaks three languages? Trilingual. A person that speaks two languages? Bilingual. A person that speaks one language? British.”

Excuse me, do you speak English?

At the very least, I used to empathize with folks who would ask me this question in public places. Why presume that everyone speaks English just because they're in the United States? They could be tourists, visiting family, or any other myriad reason that they may legitimately not be able to converse very well in English.

I'm tired, though. Tired of the presumption that I'm a foreigner or that if I don't speak English, I must speak my ethnic tongue.

I live in California, Caucasians don't even have a plurality population here. Yet, this seems to be a forgotten footnote on just how diverse the population in California is.

I eat my ethnic food, I go shopping at ethnic establishments, and frequent my little ethnic enclaves for those trinkets, snacks, and odds-and-ends that only those places can provide me.

Yes, I do all that.

I've never been to my ‘homeland’, though. I'm just another kid from Southern California and I'm happy with that. When other folks in my ethnic community hear about it, they encourage me to get in touch with my cultural roots, or that I'm somehow not a real member of the community.

Maybe I should visit the ‘mainland’, as it's called, but somehow it seems to invoke the sense that America is a surrogate homeland and the idea that your real home is another world, one you haven't seen and vaguely understand. I like parts of my ethnic heritage — I embrace those parts.

So, no. I don't really know how ‘that place’ is, I've never been to it. And yes, believe it or not, I do speak the language — fluently, as a matter-of-fact. Now excuse me, I'm going to go get a Double Double.

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