Everybody speaks English, don't they?Those three dreaded words a British linguist just doesn't want to hear
Those three dreaded words a British linguist just doesn't want to hear, 'everybody speaks English'. It just makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall, not just because it makes you feel that your skills are undervalued and that learning languages has been an utter and complete waste of time, but you start to pity the closemindedness of those living in such a multicultural world who generally believe that it's true! It's probably the equivalent of telling a salesperson that nobody wants to buy their product when they fully well know that there are people out there who want to buy it.
My reaction to 'everybody speaks English' over the years has changed. While I was studying in my first year at university it made me question myself, Why on earth am I wasting my time studying languages if everybody speaks English? I quickly discovered that when working and living abroad that 'Everybody speaks English' was a complete myth. I'm glad that I discovered it was a myth for myself as this can deter others from learning foreign languages altogether. After discovering that the statement was far from true it originally frustrated me wondering whether this view is down to pure arrogance or laziness. However, now I believe it's down to people playing it too safe, being afraid to leave their comfort zone and sticking to what they are used to, potentially creating a false and closed world in such a multicultural one.
At the end of my first year at university I worked at Disneyland Paris and quickly discovered that the majority of my colleagues were unable to speak any English at all, except for my colleagues from Sweden, Finland and Estonia. One Spanish colleague said to me one day 'I couldn't stand British people before I met you. I thought that they were arrogant and thought that they were better than everyone else expecting everybody to learn English. You have completely changed my opinion.' I was quite shocked. As I was able to speak different languages I was often the first British person many had been able to have a conversation with. As they didn't speak any English at all I almost acted as a gateway for them into accessing British culture which they often showed a huge interest for, whether they were fans of Arsenal FC or the Beatles. There was a lot of banter between myself and my French colleagues when Team GB climbed up the medals table and overtook France in the 2012 Olympics.
I found that at Disneyland Paris the French would do everything to avoid saying English words. Big Thunder Mountain became le train de la mine (the mine train), It's a Small World became la maison des poupées (the doll's house), Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey became glace à la banane avec pépites de chocolat (banana ice cream with chocolate chips). If the French did make an attempt to say these words in English you could easily spot the embarrassment on their faces.
Then for my third year at university I studied abroad. In the small town of Alcalà de Henares just located outside of Madrid and in Verona, Italy. I discovered that very few spoke English ranging from my lecturers to the general public. I then went on to finish my fourth and final year at university and started my first role as a French and Spanish speaking Technical Support Analyst. I helped French and Spanish clients resolve technical issues with tills, printers, chip and pin machines as well as other issues.
It was very rare to come across a client who spoke English. I often spoke to engineers on the phone who didn't speak any English at all. Those who did speak some English didn't know the technical terms which resulted us in speaking in their native tongue. Word quickly got round that technical support was now available in their languages and French and Spanish clients started phoning up, not with just one issue but many. It was clear to see that these unreported issues had been going on for months or even years and they had refrained from calling up for help due to the language barrier. The amount of the tickets shot up and myself and my colleague were quick to help and arranged engineers to pay a visit if required.
One day myself and my other multilingual colleague were both on the phone and a Spanish call was diverted to an English speaking colleague. I finished my call and from the other side of the room a colleague shouts across 'Emily! Help! I have a Spanish lady on the phone and she can't understand a word I'm saying!' I told her to transfer the call to me and my Spanish client was quite stressed out too and told me the exact same thing but in Spanish. It was quite comical. My colleagues soon came to realise that not everybody spoke English.
Two years later I started a role in Credit Control collecting debt built up from hotel commissions and discovered that the company had wanted to hire a linguist several years before. It was finally agreed to hire a linguist and when I started I was chasing aged debt. It was a huge challenge as the debts had never been chased and were normally written off. Some hotels had changed hands several times and due to not hiring a linguist sooner this meant that the debt became a lot more difficult to recuperate as warning letters had previously been sent out in English and were ignored and there was nobody to phone the hotels to chase the unpaid debts. With a lot of hard work by translating all of the invoices and warning letters into different languages, sending messages and calling hotels in the target language I managed to halve the debt.
A year later I was back working in a technical role where my clients were based in many European countries including France, Spain and Italy. Clients often spoke in their native tongue and when on a trip to the client's office in France it was clear to see that the English spoken was minimal and being able to speak French was greatly appreciated, sped resolution times up and helped form a stronger relationship with the clients. I also found that some German clients asked to speak to my German speaking colleagues as they were able to speak some English, but weren't comfortable using technical terms in English.
In my current role at Oracle the majority of my Spanish speaking clients are based in Latin America who will choose the Spanish speaking language option without fail when calling. Having learned Spanish in Spain I have to adapt my Spanish by using a different accent and word choice in order to be understood. I often speak to clients in France, Morocco, Monaco and Quebec who speak in French rather than in English.
After reflecting upon each role I have come across very few clients that speak English and I now believe that the statement 'nobody speaks English' is actually more of a valid statement than 'everybody speaks English.' I have clearly seen the difference it has made by hiring linguists by knocking down the language barrier, whether that has resulted in quicker resolution times and happier clients in technical roles or recuperating debts. Knowing that there are employers who seek those with foreign language skills will act as a motive in inciting more to learn foreign languages.
Eradicating the ideology that everybody speaks English will encourage more to learn languages, encourage more people to live abroad and experience new cultures and last but not least will encourage more companies to hire linguists, benefiting both clients and employers. It's clear to see that the benefits linguists bring to an employer are endless and can be replicated in all sectors........
For more posts from Emily Nicole Boaler please see her LI Profile