Getting to grips with a foreign language seems to be something of a blind spot for many Britons.
Some have put the British lack of motivation to master another tongue down to the result of having no real foreign borders, while others suggest that years of cultural hegemony from both the UK and the US make it easier to assume the rest of the world speaks English.
A recent survey by AA Financial Services shows that one in nine (11%) Britons feel there isn’t any need for them to learn the language spoken in their holiday destination.
This has resulted in 20% admitting that they’ve faced an embarrassing ‘lost in translation’ moment while abroad, where neither person in the conversation can understand what the other is trying to say.
This statistic is not surprising, if you consider that 14% of the people surveyed said they had absolutely no idea how to speak a single word from the country they were visiting.
Ordering in a restaurant
But what about holidaymakers travelling closer to home? You might think that tourists hoping to enjoy some European high streets and a spot of nightlife might have brushed up on their languages. The evidence, however, points to an altogether sorrier tale.
The same study shows that only 41% of Britons are confident to talk in a foreign language while shopping abroad, and just 37% would be happy ordering in a restaurant. Let’s hope British travellers remember their maps and guide books, as less than a quarter (22%) say they would attempt to ask for directions when in a different country.
Another study, this time from DFDS Seaways, labels Britons with a negative attitude to foreign dialects as ‘language louts’, and suggests it’s not just the language that they shun.
The mindset of a typical language lout also sees them avoiding foods that aren’t deemed ‘British’ enough.
Some have an altogether different attitude to foreign languages. Rather than admit failure, there are certain Britons who prefer to battle on regardless and trot out any phrase they may have committed to memory, regardless of whether they fit the situation or not.
Much like the character of Derek Trotter from the much-loved UK sitcom Only Fools and Horses, it’s not uncommon to hear certain Brits click their fingers and call out “garçon”, despite the fact that they might be sitting in a café in Milan or Munich.
Here are some of Del Boy’s favourite misused expressions:
- Creme de la menthe – in reality a minty alcohol, but used by Del to mean “the very best”
- Si danke schon, bonjour – why use one language when three will do
- Bonnet de douche – used as a means of sounding French and impressive, the term actually refers to the humble shower cap
- Mon dieu! – may seem like an exclamation implying, “you idiot”, but in reality it means “my god!”
- Mange tout – these snap peas are common to most supermarkets, but Del has been known to use it to mean “my pleasure”
Let’s not paint an overly pessimistic picture of the Briton abroad though. More than half (52%) of those responding to the DFDS poll said they do like to learn some phrases of the local language, as well as try the local cuisine.
Some of the reasons they give for this open-mindedness include that it:
- is polite
- is part of the holiday experience, and
- helps to connect people
However, sometimes life gets in the way of the best laid plans. Many of the respondents said they would like to learn more but they simply do not have room in their busy schedule. It seems the biggest barrier preventing British holidaymakers from learning a foreign language is lack of time.
Translation apps to help you along
For those of you looking for a little help translating while abroad…don’t despair. There are currently a number of mobile phone apps on the market that will let you bridge the language gap and make your shopping or restaurant experience go smoothly and incident-free.
1) Google Translate – this free app can be used in voice command mode for over 15 languages, and it will give spoken translations in over 20. But what really impresses is the range of languages it can accommodate for when translating text – over 60.
2) Universal Translator – supporting over 50 languages, this app automatically translates messages as they’re typed. However, both parties must have a Google Chat account.
3) iTranslate – choose a phrase in any of the languages it covers and this app will speak the phrase in that dialect.
4) Voice Translate Pro – this paid-for app will translate over 50 languages and play the translated material back to you on your phone.
5) Bing Translator – another free app. This offering from Microsoft covers 40 languages, either as text or spoken into the phone. It also allows you to take a photo of written text, which it will then translate for you.
A translator in your pocket
For those of you who don’t want your phone going off as you attend a business meeting abroad, there are a range of pocket translators. These work without the need for mobile phone coverage and offer a wide range of languages and translation features in one device.
But beware, friendships can be won or lost on a misjudged word. So leave your Del Boy at home, embrace the new and try your hand at communicating in a foreign language. With only a little effort, the rewards of tackling a new dialect may be the high point of your trip abroad.