The single act of travelling overseas is, for some, a daunting prospect. Organising flights, visas, vaccinations, packing and of course sizing up the possible longevity of your underwear. This however is only the start. What do you actually do when you arrive? If you decide to stay in one country for a longer period, how integrated do you become? It's possible to travel to even the most far-flung and exotic destinations and spend your days largely as if you were unemployed at home but with a splash of extra sunshine, watching movies, surfing the internet and drinking alcohol.
In many cases, it's also possible to lead your life of relaxation in foreign climes and speak only Queen Lizzy's English. In fact, it's also possible to live permanently in a non-English speaking country and get by without learning the local lingo. With English becoming the unofficial lingua franca of international business, travel & communications, does this mean that we of the English tongue don't need to learn other languages?
From a UK perspective, it would be fair to say that most of Her Majesty's subjects don't feel the need to learn the tongue of Johnny Foreigner. A slight irony considering the numbers now being launched onto the continent by the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. Does this lack of interest therefore come from laziness? Ignorance? Or maybe we genuinely don't need to try as everyone else is learning English through notable language exporters like MTV and McDonalds?
The Germans have a tendency to refer to the British as "inselaffen," or "island monkeys." This isn't only a reference to the behaviour of the pub-dwelling inhabitants but also an insight into the continental view of the British, tucked away on their little island on the edge of the continent. This island mentality may account partly for Britons unwillingness to dabble with words and sentences of a foreign nature and may also explain why English people simply speak louder when a foreigner doesn't understand them. Not a very wise move when you consider some of the complexities, double meanings and idioms employed in English.
Even when the average Englishman has screamed his request, "Would you mind lending me a quid, I'm broke," loud enough so that a dictionary weilding German understands each single word, the man with the Deutsch tongue could be forgiven for mistranslating the word "mind," not finding the word "quid" at all and then finally glancing curiously at the Englishman's body to find out exactly which part is broken.
These language faux pas are, for me at least, the best parts of learning a language. A couple of weeks ago, a student completed an exercise I had given him and read out in front of the class with a completely straight face, "A mechanic is a person who works in a factory and screws on machines." Now, that's not exactly a perfect definition and sadly the student still doesn't know this as I was trying to hard to control my laughter rather than correct him. However my favourite is from a friend who was having dinner with her Spanish boyfriends family and innocently requested "pechuga de polla." The mother, to her credit, simply smiled and said "are you sure you want polla? not pollo?" A quick dictionary inspection later revealed her initial request to be for "breast of cock" (in the penis sense) and not chicken breast as she'd hoped for.
These embarrasing moments aside, English speakers have fantastic potential to learn other European languages. Due to English being a mixed Germanic and Latin language, with a simple a change of pronounciation we can be fluent in Spanglish when in Madrid, Franglais in Paris and Denglish in Berlin. As Eddie Izzard said, we just need to get out there and mix it up a little bit...
Dr Dolittle speaks many tongues