03 October 2011

Languages: who drew the short straw?


A new resident to Italy would take but five minutes to clock that the whole country appears collectively hellbent on destroying their language.

Any workplace, TV programme, newspaper, or even supermarket would stuff the unlikeliest of sentences with English words (in many cases misused and, in most, horrifically pronounced).

In turn, this is ensuring the virtual disappearance of perfectly valid Italian words. And so you’ll find that they no longer have a “riunione”, but a “miting” instead. “Facciamo il miting e poi mi dite qual e’ il fid-beck” (“Let’s do a meeting and then you’ll tell me what you think”). Or…an Italian doesn’t exercise, he “va a fare feet-ness”, he does fitness, whatever the fuck that means. Oh and listen, “beck-ap” your files, won’t you?

More, when the Italian telly shows the equivalent of Match of the Day, they won’t show “le fasi salienti”, but “gli ai-laits”, the “highlights”, because they obviously reckon that butchering an English word or ten makes them look trendy and cool and up-to-date with whatever they think it’s “feh-shun” (by which they mean “fashionable”, of course). Cringeworthy or what?...

And so on. The examples are endless. The last fifteen years have seen entire swathes of Italian vocabulary being traded for badly-interpreted and ill-pronounced English (or especially American) words. Which is a shame, because the beautiful Italian language has quickly taken on a seemingly unstoppable perilous trip to nowhere.

Most Italians don’t realize how pathetic this looks especially to English-speaking foreigners. Like I mentioned above, most words are ill-pronounced and badly used or, in some cases, totally made up (jogging for instance, is “footing” in Italy, which is ridiculous, as a non-existent vaguely English-sounding word is being used in place of the perfectly valid Italian “c├│rrere”).

Particularly baffling is the fact that this invasion of Bad English is not coinciding with a tangible improvement in foreign language skills. Sure, on average the Italians speak better English than the Spaniards but, while they may promptly inform you that they work at a “khol centerrrr”, they won’t have a clue what you’re on about in the event you were to use the verb “call” in any other context.

Perhaps instead of banning kebab shops from town centres and egging people on against “the immigrants”, Emperor Berlusconi could do with passing a law aimed at safeguarding the Italian language. Where the hell is nationalism when you really need it?


When you talk to them about it, the Spaniards think that they’re following on the same dubious footsteps as the Italians on this. Yet, they can rest assured, they’re doing nowhere near as bad.

In fact, I have a lot of respect for the fact that the Spanish language is resisting the English invasion like only the French are. Even words like hamburger or computer are commonly referred to as hamburguesa and ordenador respectively, even by younger people.

I guess it certainly helps that the Spanish language is one of the most spoken in the world and that lots of dealings with a good chunk of foreign countries and hundreds of millions of people around the world can still be conducted in their mother tongue.

This isn’t to say that you won’t come across a butchered English word here and there. In common with the Italians they also indulge in “footing” when they fancy a run, they think that bungee jumping is “puenting” (from the Spanish “puente”, “bridge”) and they’ll act like you’re having them on when you tell them that the word is not actually an English one, and they would also refer to harassment in the work place as “mobbing”, except that they pronounce it “moving”, like the verb to move – fuck knows why and good luck to you if you fancy explaining that it makes no sense.

But those futile details aside, it is indisputable that the Spaniards were last in the queue when God was handing out language skills. With some laudable exceptions (which do exist, and extra kudos to them as they really stand out more than they would in any other country), most Spaniards are absolutely not cut out for languages. Or at least English.

The reasons can be difficult to pinpoint and many a debate can be had about it. One possible explanation is the above-mentioned weight carried by the Spanish language. Whereas, say, a Dutchman or a Dane may be truly lost outside their own country, Spanish is spoken by almost 400 million people in the world and it’s studied by many others as well.

But many Spaniards would also tell you that their problem lies with having all American films and programmes dubbed on TV. “They don’t do that in Portugal or Scandinavia and look how much better their English is”, the argument goes. Yeah, but they dub every single thing in Germany too and their English is on average about 20 million times better than the Spaniards’. And, no, German is not similar to English. At all.

Many also put their poor language skills down to not learning foreign languages early enough at school. But again, they have done so now for a generation and the improvement is negligible. They may be able to tell you every shade of the rainbow in English, but ask for directions and you may end up elsewhere altogether.

While in Catalonia, I was fairly sure their bilingualism was to be deemed as the main cause behind their poor grasp of English. After all, you’ll be blown away by how dexterously those people switch from Spanish to Catalan and viceversa. Hats off to them. Which is why I thought that perhaps mastering two languages perfectly would detract at least a little from learning a third or a fourth.

And yet, when you visit other non-bilingual parts of Spain, the situation is pretty much the same. So bollocks to my “theory”.

Now, the good thing is that you’ll be forced to improve your Spanish or pick it up altogether if you decide to move there. Either that or you’ll be lost. Unless, that is, you choose to join “Jim Brown, expat and Daily Mail reader” in one of those dreary English-only “communities” in the Costa del Sol (more of which below).

Back to the point, however, one final remark.

Whenever they approach English, most Spaniards obsess over grammar. They see it as maths or physics, something very rigid and best approached by using the so-called comfort blanket of gap-filling exercises and no speaking. You speak to them in English and it makes you feel like you’re violating them. So perhaps, just perhaps, that’s where they should start making some changes.


Like mentioned before, your average German is a beast at English. And it really makes you wonder how they manage, because their language is so different from English (forget the common Anglo-Saxon roots, you can wipe your arse with them when you’re trying to solve an issue over the phone with Deutsche Telekom), so they must find it at least as difficult as the English find learning German.

And yet, most Germans would be able to at least engage in some fairly complex conversation. Their vocabulary may be limited, they may drop a clanger every five seconds or just speak in the present tense, but your average French, Italian or Spanish person can’t even hold a candle to them.

And yet, German TV too dubs every single programme that stems from America. Watch telly in Germany and you’ll be blown away by the sight of Mr T from the A-Team yakking away in Deutsch, or Kate Winslet telling Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic that he should “aufwachen” as a rescue boat is bound to soon pick them up.

At school too, the Germans will tell you that speaking is hardly ever done in their English classes. How could the teachers manage after all, when there are 25 to 30 teenagers who couldn’t give a flying fuck?

So where does their skill come from? Perhaps natural talent, especially if you consider that a fair number can also manage a sentence or two in French or Spanish and that those from the former DDR can speak Russian – as it was the mandatory foreign language at school well into the 1990s.

However. A word of warning. Don’t take the Germans’ knack for English for granted.

On one level, there is a huge contradiction. While some degree of English is widely spoken, especially in big cities, you will hardly ever find instructions in other languages. From digital televisions, stereos, toasters and disposable barbecues, unlike other countries (England included) more often than not vital information is provided in Deutsch only.

Which begs the second point. Chances are when you need it the most, you won’t find a single person who may be able to help you in English. This is especially true of staff at the local council, railway station or also utility companies (try and solve a problem with electricity company Vattenfall, or the aforementioned and widely despised Deutsche Telekom, it’ll make you want to headbutt the wall). Basically, whenever there’s something as crucial as buying a travel card, trying to have something repaired or asking for other valuable information, Sod’s law will ensure you’ll have to come up with some other plan. Or, better, learn German.

That said though, most Germans would be more than happy to help you, sometimes even without you asking. It’s not uncommon, in case you’re looking a little lost on the U-Bahn or at a bus stop, for someone to approach you kindly offering help.


I wrote earlier that the Spanish were at the bottom of the queue when God was handing out language skills. That may well be the case, but the English were not even invited.

There are plenty of exceptions of course, and some Brits are certainly very good at French, German, Spanish or others (even though the last government criminally allowed students to drop languages at 14). Yet the fact is, when abroad, too many take the infuriatingly post-colonial default approach that the whole world is expected to speak English.

And they do so in the most atrocious fashion. Many don’t even bother to ask “if” the waiter or shop assistant serving them “can” speak English.

I’ve lost count of cringeworthy vignettes I’ve witnessed while abroad. I could start with the posh sounding Alpha Male at Orio al Serio Airport, in Italy, commanding the bar maid to hand him a chocolate bar (all in English, of course) and then simply shouting louder and turning redder when she couldn’t understand him, the prick.

Or, in Barcelona, in the excellent area known as Rocafort. Three English geezers, proper football oiks, rudely telling the barmaid that their pint didn’t look good enough. “Top it up”, they repeated, the thickos. As if a non-English person (in her own country), is supposed to understand idiomatic phrases like that. Set yourself on fire, I say.

Or how about a former colleague who, after 6 years in Spain (and married to a Spaniard as well), was literally unable to count to ten in Spanish (I’m not joking) and had to order in restaurants by slamming his finger against the word on the menu. What is wrong with these people? I’m not saying it’s not a very difficult process. It is, of course, but you’d have to try pretty hard (or be as thick as Jodie from EastEnders) to not be able to count to ten after six years in a new country.

And that’s without counting the hordes of English tourists (with or without football tops, wahey!) who just cannot believe it that English is not the language commonly spoken in Italy, Spain, Belgium, Austria or elsewhere.

How thick can you be to truly ask “do they really not understand English at that [Italian] bakery [in Italy]? Come on!” (as if the local people were feigning it) or – worse - to howl surprise that no, they don’t have the BBC, ITV or any British channel in Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc.

Thank god they don’t. English may be the international language of business and diplomacy, but jesus…! Why should a baker in a small Italian town speak fuckin’ English? Just stick to that copy of the Daily Mail and fuck off!

The biggest joke –and one entire chapter should be written about it- comes courtesy of your average British Expat in Spain. The last ten years have seen an estimated 761,000 Brits colonising entire areas in the south of Spain, especially the provinces around Murcia and Alicante.

Can you just imagine if the same happened in reverse and 761,000 Spaniards clustered in the space a few years around Dorset or Cornwall, clogging up local public services and pushing up property prices in the process? The Express, the Sun, the Daily Mail and Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn would all suffer a fit of apoplexy.

The thing is, as they would happily tell you, the vast amount of those “expats” (coz they’re not migrants, you see, they’re “expats”) left the UK in disgust at rising immigration and “those fuckin foreigners who can’t even bother to learn English”.

Except that these same Brits are not even remotely interested in their new adoptive country, and even less so learning Spanish. They will hardly be able to order a beer in a language other than English, as they actively choose to live in entire enclaves without mixing with the locals. They’ll have their British Supermarkets, Fish & Chips shops, pubs complete with Carling on tap and Premier League on the big screen and you are likely to find them sunbathing while reading yet another headline screaming that –back in England- THE MIGRANTS ARE TAKING ALL OUR JOBS.

And this is the thing. The bitter irony is that all the most xenophobic and racist tabloids to hail from the UK can be found on Spanish soil with the words “Printed in Spain” reproduced on the front page, such is the sheer number of Brits who decided to set up tent on Iberian soil.



1 comment:

  1. lol love the new blog :) I can't wait for 'drinking habits', 'food', 'openness/friendliness' and 'love/relationships'...

    German is pretty bad for adapting random English pseudo-words too though. And listening to German popular music with English lyrics can be quite cringeworthy too - I can provide examples if you need any ;)


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