Brits Abroad in a Post-Brexit World: the struggle to learn languages


Tom Lindley explains the struggle to learn languages and the need for British people to persevere.

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By Tom Lindley

Like almost two-thirds of our population, I cannot speak another language. Comforted by the thought that speaking English is the ‘global method of communication’, I’ve never felt the need to deviate from the status quo. Who could blame me? Given that the top three destinations for Brits to go abroad in 2022 were Spain (16.5 million visitors); France (7 million); and Greece (4.2 million), all of which feature English as their most-commonly spoken second language, it seems rather counterproductive to learn anything new. It's not for lack of trying though. I’ve reinstalled Duolingo more times than I’ve had hot dinners. There’s just this feeling of existentialism about learning something that we’ve all accepted to be rather pointless as rather…well, pointless.

As a somewhat self-aware Briton, I am conscious of the stereotype our fine nation incurs from our continental counterparts. Having sobered up from drunkenly gallivanting around Europe’s cultural capitals, I am now only left with partial memories of the locals I encountered and being less than impressed with the sight of hammered Englishmen stumbling back to their hostels, kebab in hand. It’s a rather churlish impression to leave, but one in which I think could be somewhat mitigated if we took the time to learn the local tongue.

It goes without saying we have a quirky culture that many of our continental counterparts don’t always seem to understand. Putting it bluntly, we can be quite stubborn when on holiday, prioritising eating at English restaurants in a resort populated by English speakers. The desperation we have to go away and avoid any change in cultural norms is the reason we bring a collective sense of dread to any waiter or hotelier south of the channel. Something about the Aegean Sea or the Mediterranean sun just makes us long for our cold and wet shores, and all that it possesses. If we took the time to go beyond our aversion to language, perhaps we would fare better and brush off the ‘Brits Abroad’ label.

This stereotype has nothing to do with a deep-seated longing for the good old British way. Domestically, we view ourselves as a reasonably multicultural population. Many of our great culinary triumphs have origins abroad. If you’ve ever found yourself in dire need of a greasy kebab after several pints, then you’ve engaged in cuisine popularised by Turkish immigrants in Germany. The same can be said of the Chinese takeaway which we find ourselves ordering after a tough week at work. Although, I will add that salt and pepper chips don’t count as ‘traditional oriental scran’. We can even trace the routes of our national dish, the Chicken Tikka Masala, to South Asia.

For fear of committing treason, I won’t entertain the theory that the Belgians invented fish and chips — I will merely add that it’s a theory. In our post-Brexit world, I simply cannot be seen to give credit to those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels who are taking our sovereignty from us.

So, if we’re willing to try new cultures, why can’t we be bothered to communicate with the people from these cultures? This calls back to the old saying, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. By opening our minds to new linguistic possibilities, we automatically engage in new cultures beyond the surface level. We begin to understand glimpses of locals conversing and thus feel a certain smugness about doing so. It’s with this smugness, that we can take it one step further and gain a deeper appreciation for the people overseas and their cultures, temporarily abandoning our own self-obsession while abroad. In return, perhaps we could begin to mend soured relations with Europe.

Convincing a population to pay more attention in French lessons at school is an uphill battle. For the few who disagree and believe in bilingualism, many of them won’t arrive at this conclusion until they are face to face with a language barrier. After a recent getaway to Germany, I am both proud and ashamed to now be a part of this camp. For anyone who is trying to learn a language, the encounter I had with a waiter in Bonn adequately sums up how pointless it feels:.

It all starts when I see the waiter approaching the table. I rehearse the German I’ve learnt in my head. I warn him that my German isn’t very good (it’s the first sentence I learned) and start by saying “Kann ich habe” (can I have). At this point, it all comes crumbling down when I forget the German word for a chicken schnitzel. Of course, that is the word, it’s a German dish, and we never bothered to call it anything else. As this thought runs through my head, all I can let out to the waiter is an incoherent mutter. Instead I decide to start the sentence over again, this time in English, thinking to myself that his English far exceeds my German, so what’s the point in trying?

On the train back to my hotel, I am reminded that my situation was much like that of Del Boy’s in Only Fools and Horses, where he asks his brother, Rodney, what duck a l’orange is in French, only to be told that a l’orange is how they say it in France. What was an amusing skit actually turned out to be accurate to my German encounter.

It’s a bittersweet feeling; I now want to engage in new cultures through languages while also being stuck feeling like everyone abroad is far more proficient than I. In times like this, it requires a certain level of resilience. As a nation, we’ve already made ourselves look rather foolish many times, so stumbling over vocabulary hardly qualifies as embarrassing.

Perhaps I will continue in my old ways: being an English speaker and nothing more. The Duolingo bird may endlessly badger me to change my aversion to languages, but the question is, will I listen? To those reading this, who are in a similar boat, I ask only one thing – do as I say and not as I do. Put yourself out there to learn something new. It’s not too late to make the New Year’s resolution to learn a language. Fire up the Duolingo and let's show those on the continent that we do genuinely care for culture.