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Everyone speaks English

Discussion in 'Modern foreign languages' started by haggisman, Apr 20, 2007.

  1. It seems to be a commonly-held belief in this country that there is no great need to learn a foreign language because everyone else speaks English.

    Whilst this theory may be true in Holland and the Scandanavian countries, it certainly doesn't apply to places such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany.

    For many British people, their experience of Europe is limited to airports and holiday resorts, these places obviously employ locals who are proficient in English. Perhaps this reinforces the stereotype that everyone knows our language.

    So, does this all filter down to our kids and discourage them from taking a foreign language at school?
  2. It seems to be a commonly-held belief in this country that there is no great need to learn a foreign language because everyone else speaks English.

    Whilst this theory may be true in Holland and the Scandanavian countries, it certainly doesn't apply to places such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany.

    For many British people, their experience of Europe is limited to airports and holiday resorts, these places obviously employ locals who are proficient in English. Perhaps this reinforces the stereotype that everyone knows our language.

    So, does this all filter down to our kids and discourage them from taking a foreign language at school?
  3. d_m


    This is something that teachers of MFL have always battled with. Although, in my school more students seem to be opting to take a language in KS4, there is always a constant battle with students and parents when Options Evening comes around.

    Unfortunately, we have to realize that the majority of our students will only ever see tourist resorts and airports (where everybody has to speak English) and also that GCSE Language exams are among the most difficult subjects offered in schools.

    At my school students tend to be discouraged from studying a language, as it is easier for them to achieve a C grade in Leisure and Tourism, or Business Studies than in German. (Before I receive any complaints, I actually teach both of these subjects and they are much easier!!)

    The fact that universities may soon require students to have studied a MFL to GCSE may help us to raise the profile of languages in schools.

    However, we must keep plugging away and not be disheartened. The more fun we make language learning and the more enjoyment the students get out of it, the better it will be for us in the long term.
  4. Yes, d_m, here is no question that foreign languages are "difficult" compared to some other subjects, and this affects decisions made by children, parents and senior management teams.

    The journalist Tom Whipple managed to cover the A/S Sociology syllabus in just two weeks and obtained an A grade pass. The story appeared in The Education Guardian on 16 August 2005:

    See the follow-up story, 23 August 2007:
    where Tom Whipple writes:

    "But could I have learned the more traditional subjects - Maths, Physics, English, Economics - in the same time? Almost certainly not. Sociology must, by its very nature, be more accessible than those subjects. In some ways at least, it is an easier A/S-level."

    OK, so Tom Whipple's experience of being a journalist provided him with a lot of background information that could have been applied to the Sociology syllabus, but it shows up the relative differences in difficulty between subjects. I would like to have seen him attempt a GCSE or A/S level in any foreign language after two weeks of study. Bear in mind that the Council of Europe recommends 350-400 guided learning hours for CEF B1 = Higher GCSE, according to the DfES Languages Ladder:

    However, the 350-400 hours are not cast in stone. Learning a new language depends on your starting point. Study one Romance Language and the others come quickly. Study German and by applying the rules of the Second Sound Shift you can make some sense of a Dutch newspaper. I learned Russian as a young man. Attempting to learn Polish in anticipation of a couple of visits to Krakow was a bit confusing. When I ordered a beer it was a pushover, as this sounds much the same in Russian and Polish. "Thank you" is totally different. And Polish, being written in the Roman alphabet instead of Cyrillic, just looked strange to me until I had worked out the correlation between the written words and their pronunciation - and then many words began to look and sound very familiar.

    We admire foreign nationals' skills in English, but English is a very accessible language, especially in the early stages of learning. Wilfried Decoo wrote the following to the CALICO discussion list in February 2005:

    "We have calculated that French requires, for grammatical correctness, six times more learning energy than English (number of articles & agreements, forms of adjectives & agreements, number of verbal forms...) to attain comparable levels of correct communication, especially in the early years (!). Then there is the distance between languages. For lexical mastery, e.g. from English to French, those two languages are relatively close. From Dutch to French is already much harder."

    Back in the 1960s a message was scrawled above the toilet roll holder in several of the loos at my university: "Social Science degrees. Please take one."
  5. Well, I've been living in Austria for 7 months and have discovered that most people do indeed speak English which is slightly irritating for someone trying to learn German. I've lost count of the number of times I've ordered something in a restaurant in my best German, and the waiter has replied to me in English. And just the other day I was at the train station enquiring about tickets to Italy, again in German, and the reply was in English. I appreciate they are only trying to help but I often wish I was in a country were very few people spoke in English. The Austrian students I've made friends with try and speak English to me on a daily basis as they are keen to practice with a native speaker. Even all the other foreign students from Eastern Europe & Asia speak English fluently and would rather communicate in English than German.
  6. erl


    I have experienced this same problem. I am a Spanish teacher in a U.S. city where you almost never come across an individual whose language is other than English. I have several students who have commented, "I don't see why I have to take Spanish; why don't they just learn English?" The fact is that Spanish is increasingly needed here to function in a professional capacity in many of our hospitals, banks, etc.

    In the United States, foreign languages are seen as insignificant courses in our schools. Many of us who teach them are actually viewed with distain. For example, a teacher from another academic department might request that one of my students be excused from Spanish class to work on a math/science project. After all, it's only Spanish class. Awareness of the importance of foreign languages is growing (students will soon need 3 years of a foreign language to pursue a college track program) but the progress is slow.

  7. I have had the same experience as Louster on many, many occasions. I go skiing in Austria every winter season. I speak fluent German, but I have to push hard in order to prevent the locals answering me in English. If you make the smallest mistake in gender, case, word order or pronunciation, Austrians assume that you don't know German very well and switch immediately into English. I make few such mistakes, however, and I still have to insist on speaking German most of the time.

    The problem is compounded by the fact that Austrians, especially in rural areas, usually speak an incomprehensible dialect among themselves (as do the Swiss), and when they speak to foreigners (and this includes North Germans) they have to speak effectively what is for them a foreign language, namely High German (Hochdeutsch or Schriftdeutsch). It is often easier for them just to speak English when talking to British, Irish, Dutch and Scandinavian visitors.

    Interestingly, dialects in Austria are not considered "inferior" as they are in many parts of the UK. Everyone in the village in the Tyrol where I go skiing, from the mayor to the dustman, speaks the local dialect, but they write High German - apart from a few local words such as "heuer", "Jänner" and "Feber".
  8. I think we've all encountered that problem.

    I usually just soldier on and make them realise that I am not going to speak to them in English!

    The best country, though, for this is, IMO, Italy: they assume you don't speak it and are gobsmacked/bowled over/enchanted when you do and will then immediately try to help with your efforts to speak Italian rather than jumping in in Italian!

    My o/h has a grade C o level in French and no other formal language skills at all. Over a number of holidays in Italy with me (I have a degree in it) he has picked up enough bits and pieces to communicate basic needs (GCSE in other words). The moment he comes out with his sentence/phrase in Italian, they are all over him with smiles and encouragement. It is fabulous to see how his language skills have improved as a consequence!!!!!

  9. Regarding people responding to you in English. The Germans where I live (North Germany) are generally really patient with me when I make the occasional slip, they only correct me when I ask them to and seem to consider it their life's work to teach me as many obscure idioms as possible!

    When I lived in Russia, it used to drive me mad that even if you'd asked for something simple, in perfectly fine Russian, they've reply in English. So I, when I was in a particularly obnoxious mood, used to then reply in very quick, very idiomatic English (I used to find that bingo calls used to throw them, two little ducks, quack quack etc) and then smile and say 'Would it be better if I spoke Russian'?

    I know it's an obnoxious thing to do and it was usually only in response to the surly, unhelpful approach to customer service in Russia in those days. Certainly wouldn't do it here.

    I've lived here for a while now and my German isn't perfect, but not once in the last year has someone responded to me in English. I agree with GroovyGuzi that it could well be an Austrian thing. - the North German accent is much easier to understand!
  10. Geekie

    Geekie Occasional commenter

    In answer to the OP, yes, it's one of the factors. The children get in a plane, sit in it for 2 1/2 hours and then get out again and they're in this place called Spain. They don't really know where it is how far they've had to travel to get there. It just seems like England but hotter and by the sea. They never see the real country or meet "real" Spaniards, most of whom speak very poor English if any.

    I had a GCSE Spanish sink group the a couple of years ago. One of them had arrived in the group 1/2 way through Y10 from the ASDAN group, saying he'd rather get 2 GCSEs than do that. He tried pretty hard and by the end of Y10 was doing well. Then that summer his mum took him to Benidorm for his holidays. On his first day he went to a cafe and in his best Spanish asked for a pizza. The waiter laughed at him. This pupil was embarrassed and upset and was a complete pain in the neck for all of Y11. Ended up with a grade G, just.
  11. I?ve had the same experience as aspidistra in Italy. The Italians are so encouraging that I could even go so far as to say that Italian should be the first foreign language to be taught in UK schools.

    In the 1980s I spent many pleasurable holidays in Italy with my wife and two daughters. At the time I had decided to follow the BBC ?Buongiorno Italia? course. I quickly reached the point where I felt fairly comfortable in using basic transactional language, so I put it to the test on our next holiday in Italy by ordering a meal in a restaurant for the four of us. The whole process went smoothly, with the waiter speaking clearly and slowly. When I had finished ordering, the waiter said in perfect English: ?I like people who try. You can have half a litre of wine on the house.? The waiter had worked in a restaurant in England only a few miles from where we live.

    Yes, crunchie, North German is easier to understand. I studied at Hamburg University and had very few problems. It was quite a different experience from being in Austria.

    As for Geekie?s point regarding Spanish, I have spent three holidays in tourist areas on the coast in Spain and in Mallorca. It was just like Blackpool with sunshine. My wife and I have a friend (native Spanish) in Valencia and we visit her regularly. It?s a totally different experience.

    France can be offputting. I recall an occasion when I was working for the British Council in Paris. A number of Brits, including myself, who spoke French had been brought in to staff a British Council stand at an exhibition. One of the Brits was fluent in French but had a marked English accent. I could not believe the rudeness of some of the conference visitors towards her, openly criticising her pronunciation or just shrugging their shoulders and walking away to talk to another person on the stand. Having said that, I have found the French in rural areas very helpful and polite. When I talk to them I often apologise for my hesitant French. They usually respond by congratulating me on my French and thank me for making the effort to speak their language. I have had similar experiences in Montreal. I usually begin by speaking French in shops and hotels. The French Canadians are delighted to find a Brit willing to use their language, congratulate me and then continue the conversation in fluent English.
  12. I agree that it can be very irritating for the few keen UK linguists to go abroard and end up being practice-bots for foreigners keen to practise their English. You have to fight, somewhat, to be able to practise the language you went there to study.

    I don't think it's particularly obnoxious to do what you did, crunchie, because you've started out in their language. It's ruder for them to switch to English, and as you are getting it all the time you are bound to get fed up of it. Going into odd English is one of my favourite ploys too. When the waiter starts to speak English to you, even though you spoke foreign to start with, use phrases like 'My good man, would you be so good as to pass me the bill of fayre?' Then go back into foreign when he doesn't understand. OK, so it's not particularly nice, and as teachers we should be applauding efforts, so we're told, but doesn't it get on your ****?
  13. hiya TWALT...what happens in thailand is even more annoying. when a lot of thais see a foreign face they panic and try to rememeber all the english they were taught (badly) at school. so when you speak to them in thai they can't understand you...because they are expecting english, and so they don't understand the thai you say to them because it's not any english that they know!

    quite cute i suppose, but very irritating when you ask where the toilet is and they try to give you a menu or something!
  14. I have a friend who was born in Bangor, North Wales, and grew up bilingually. If anyone switched to English while he was trying to converse with them in German, French or Russian - all of which he spoke very well - he would reply in Welsh and confuse them totally.
  15. Several years ago, I mentioned to European colleagues that students who had got a Leisure and Tourism Diploma were complaining that the jobs they were after were all being taken by foreigners, because they could speak one or more languages other than English. They were astonished that there would be such a diploma that did not require a pass in such a language, and probably some prior certification as an entrance requirement. I explained that, when I spoke to the (FE) lecturer in charge, he replied that, if a MFL was required at either stage, he would not have enough applicants to run the course.

    This further astonished my colleagues, who asked why such students wanted such a job and how they could not understand that it would limit their prospects for work both here and, most attractively, abroad. They gave up when I replied that none of them (16-18 yr-old females) wanted to work abroad.
  16. It just takes your breath away.
    I have a French friend, a graduate with a post grad diploma in 'hotellerie', excellent English and very good Spanish. She is currently hunting for a job in a hotel in England. This is the reality of the opposition in the job market.
  17. If you speak another language well, pretend you're not British. I always tried (successfully) to pretend I wasn't English. My main aim was to be taken as a native speaker of French or Spanish and if I needed to speak English I would put on a foreign accent.
    At a Council of Europe teachers' seminar, where I spoke French, a French participant asked, after a couple of days, where I was from. "Can't you guess? Maybe because I'm bilingual..." ....
    Eventually another French participant said, "I know, he's French Canadian," and one of her colleagues exclaimed "Oh! Don't accuse him of that; his French is excellent"!
  18. Wow, Groovy. I had no idea they had such a problem. My German's not good and there was no way I could understand Schwyzerdutsch, but since they, and I assume Austrians, all learn Standard German at school, I supposed they could all speak it. How on Earth do they find it easier to speak English? But then, one of my students of Spanish, who did two summer jobs in Catalunya and followed my advice to take Catalan rather than Spanish classes, was amazed that native Castilian-speaking "immigrant" workers had to struggle so hard (and resentfully) in the beginners' class, while she quickly realised that she could easily cope with the next level up.
  19. I got to the point where I was often taken for French. When people knew I was English, they could not have been more courteous, complimenting me on how well I spoke, "pas comme la plupart des etrangers". The "worst", far from critical, comment anyone made was the sudden interjection by my "landlady", when I was a 20 yr-old student, of "Ah! Je sais ce que c'est - vous parlez comme de Gaulle".
  20. I hope you don't take me wrong because of my last post - of course we are able to speak Standard German, but the standards are slightly different, so even if we speak the Austrian Standard or rather dialect-free normal colloquial language it might sound unusual to people who are not used to it, probably like a dialect. (just as some of my friends find British English more difficult to understand because they all watch American English movies - and for me it's vice versa). So maybe, if there's a slight misunderstanding caused by different accents or different vocab, people just switch to English because they assume that's easier or because they think they are being nice if they switch to the other one's language.
    My only tip is: explain that this is one of your rare chances to speak the target language and you don't want to "waste" it speaking English. I think then people will have to understand... or of course, pretend to be from somewhere else, as some others suggest.

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