Monday, August 12, 2019


It’s a point well worth noting, and Pamela Druckerman writes a good column about it. Anglo-American hegemony being what it is, more and more Europeans now speak English. And speak it well.

In the old days, especially in countries like France and Germany, people who spoke English used to disguise the fact, as though it were shameful. Now, the Paris Metro makes public service announcements in French and English.

While certain members of our own intelligentsia bewail the ascendance of Anglo-American culture, our language is now being used throughout Europe.

Druckerman explains:

The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.

It’s not just France. In recent years the number of Europeans who speak English — and speak it well — has soared. The EF English Proficiency Index, whose online test rates adults around the world, has found annual gains since it began in 2011. Of the 27 countries it ranks as highly or very highly proficient, 22 are in Europe. The French are still among Europe’s worst English speakers, but they are desperate to improve.

It’s one thing for the educated elites to speak English. But, for French taxi drivers to be fluent… it’s surely a cultural fact worth noting.

It is not an unalloyed advantage to Americans who are too lazy to learn a foreign language. Druckerman lists some of the potential dangers:

It won’t be long before Americans realize that top European schools offer a fast-growing number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taught entirely in English, for a fraction of the price of many American schools, even if you add on overseas airfare. (In 2009, there were about 55 English B.A.’s offered in Continental Europe; by 2017, there were 2,900.)

Worldwide university rankings lay bare the choices: At Belgium’s KU Leuven, ranked 48 in the world, students from outside the European Union pay 1,750 euros per year for a B.A. in business taught in English. At the University of Amsterdam, ranked 62, non-European Union students pay 9,300 euros per year for a B.A. in political science. 

America’s and Britain’s most elite schools still top the global rankings, but after that it’s harder to justify the cost.

Of course, this facilitates the exchange of ideas. If everyone can read an article in the Financial Times when it is published, this saves them from the wait attendant on translation.

But then, being fluent in English is no longer an advantage in the job market:

A few jobs still require perfect English, but in the corporate world good English has become a basic requirement, not a personal selling point. “You just have the same skill as other people — it’s like using Excel,” says Kate Bell, of the EF English Proficiency Index.

Druckerman explains that Americans should start learning other languages. In some New York precincts it is already happening. Yet, the children are not learning Spanish, German or French. They are learning Mandarin. (See the example of Arabella Kushner, who serenaded the president of China in perfect Mandarin.)

Apparently, Anglophonia has not yet arrived in China, so learning Mandarin improves your chances of doing business in the Middle Kingdom. 


trigger warning said...

I have traveled all over the globe. I never had a significant problem attributable to a language barrier. It's convenient to travel with my wife, who is fluent in Spanish, in Spanish-speaking countries, but language was no big deal before we were a couple. At least pidgin English is spoken virtually everywhere. OK?

backofanenvelope said...

I have also noticed in Belgium, Holland, France and Germany that shops and trucks are labelled in English.

Sam L. said...

Wellll, having sent millions of Americans to Europe in 1918 and 1942, that did help English get a really good foothold.

UbuMaccabee said...

Airplane pilots speak English. Game over.