I was visiting a friend in the German city of Nuremberg last week and we popped into a hairdressers for a quick trim. I left most of the talking to my friend, the German words for ‘choppy layers’ and ‘thinning scissors’ momentarily eluding me. I did exchange some pleasantries with the friendly hairdresser though, who seemed glad that we’ve enlivened her otherwise slow Monday morning at Nuremberg’s branch of ‘Hair Killer’. (Wouldn’t ‘Killer Hair’ be more suitable? No matter.)
My friend, fairly new to the city herself, then asked where we could buy souvenirs. The hairdresser turned to me and asked, ‘So what city do you come from, then?’, obviously assuming I was German. I replied, ‘I’m from London. I’m English.’ Somewhat confused, she turned to my friend and asked, ‘So she doesn’t speak German then?’ as if I’d somehow been pretending all along.
To her, the idea of an English person speaking German at all, let alone fluently, was a paradox. The stereotype of the proudly monolingual English is of course rooted in fact. The percentage of English people who can speak a foreign language is very low compared to other European nationalities and falling numbers of modern language students at UK universities suggests that this will only get worse.
The figures are often attributed to laziness (‘languages are too difficult’), ignorance (‘everyone speaks English anyway’), egotism (‘English is the most important’) or island-bred insularity.
But this is too simple. We should not be comparing a German pupil learning English with an English pupil learning German – the contexts are too dissimilar.
While many English children meet foreign languages for the first time in the classroom, where they seem strange, irrelevant and insurmountably foreign, German children are bombarded by the English language on a daily basis from birth and continue to be so throughout their lives.
Brands such as Apple and social media outlets Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, whose names all boast the global supremacy of English, cannot be ignored – unless you are raised in the darkest corner of a Bavarian forest.
The seven highest-grossing films in Germany this week were made in the USA while seven singles in the top ten were English-language. While German-language videos hold their own against British and American influences on YouTube, most of them are liberally sprinkled with English phrases such as ‘top 10’, ‘life hacks’ or ‘Topmodel’.
Go to the supermarket and you’ll find shampoo with slogans like ‘Repair and Care’ and a brand of fruit juice called ‘vitafit’. Buy Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper and you’ll find words like ‘Shitstorm’, ‘Stripper-Stars’ and ‘Iran-Deal’ in its headlines.
In this context, it’s no wonder that German children are so good at English. Absorbing it from a young age, it doesn’t feel so foreign. Seeing it around them, they understand its relevance and actually want to learn – even if it’s just to understand Avicii’s lyrics!
So until more foreign-language films get out of arthouse cinemas and into Odeons and more foreign-language music hits UK charts – and until a London hairdressers is launched as ‘Haartöter’ in a gesture to Nuremberg’s finest salon – the dire percentage of foreign-language speakers in this country is unfortunately unlikely to change.