Where everyone speaks your language and you speak no one’s

Spending a summer in continental Europe, I never got used to the ubiquity of English in a place where it’s no one’s mother tongue

Chuan-Zheng Lee
7 min readOct 2, 2019

A few years ago, a friend (let’s call him Johannes) suggested to me that the world would be better off if everyone exclusively used English in any international context. The idea shocked me, all the more given that his first language wasn’t English. Why should my native tongue be privileged above all others? We would be on a more even footing, I argued, if everyone learnt foreign languages. But it was hard to deny that his vision was far more efficient and effective than mine.

I admit, there’s a personal bias at play. I’m embarrassed to be monolingual and from a country where just one in five high school students study a foreign language. (America’s about the same.) I’m envious that almost everywhere else in the world, people learn at least a second language, often a third, as a matter of course. I try my best not to be that English-speaking tourist who just expects the world to speak their language.

So when I decided to spend a summer doing research in France, one of my goals was to buck that trend. Partly, I wanted to give one language (French) one last push before brushing up on another (Chinese). More broadly, I wanted to live through navigating a society in a second language, to better empathise with what it’s like for countless friends of mine in America who already do it.

But being a native English speaker is different. I can be as adamantly unassuming as I want, but it’s a fact that nearly everyone in my generation speaks English, and that the fallback language is therefore my first one.

Actually, this time (unlike my brief visit in 2016) my French has been holding up enough that most of my transactions stay in French, even when I visit Paris. Also, all of my new friends have been graciously patient as I stumble my way through conversations, searching for vocabulary I don’t have and asking them to repeat themselves three times, plus lentement, s’il te plaît.

The bigger guilt strikes everywhere else. When I join a table of Finns, Germans, Norwegians, Swiss, Poles or Israelis, and they all spontaneously switch to English, I’m painfully mindful that they’re all using a second language so that I can participate. Even when the conversation comprises multiple nationalities and would’ve been in English anyway, at least it’s an even playing field, suboptimal for everyone else — everyone except me.

In some sense, this line of thought is stupid. As Johannes would point out, it’s neither sensible nor practical to learn the language of every country I visit (five, excluding French, this summer), much less of everyone I meet at a European dance event. And I didn’t choose to grow up speaking the language that everyone else converged on as their common second one.

Moreover, if you wanted to pick a language to be the world’s compromise, English doesn’t have such a bad case. Everyone I’ve talked to describes English as “easy”, at least compared to other common languages. It lacks grammatical chores that most European languages obsess with — grammatical gender, verb conjugation, adjective agreement. Resources for it are plentiful, thanks mostly to Hollywood and America’s cultural dominance. Spelling’s a bit weird, but hey, you can’t have everything, I guess.

Nonetheless, I still often feel like everyone’s accommodating for me and I have no ability to reciprocate their efforts.

I don’t really know how pervasive that English-speaking presumptive tourist stereotype is. I guess it’s a bit like the French stereotype of not caring for other languages, but worse: the French stereotype at least doesn’t travel outside their borders. But I actually do fear fulfilling it, so I try to learn at least a few phrases in the languages of countries I travel to, if English isn’t one of its working languages. At a minimum, this’ll include “hello”, “excuse me”, “thank you”, and “sorry, I don’t speak [your language], do you speak English?”

Occasionally, this backfires hilariously. At a Lindy Hop social in Malmö, Sweden, after a partner said something to me in Swedish, my “jag pratar inte svenska” was met with, well, I had no idea because she was speaking Swedish, but from her tone I’m guessing it was something like, “whaddya mean, you don’t speak Swedish, you just said that in Swedish!”

On the other hand, sometimes it’s helpful, even in places you might not expect. In Riga, Latvia and Timișoara, Romania, I semi-expected language to be a barrier. But my guess that Munich would be like Malmö — that “sprechen Sie Englisch?” would be just a polite formality — was misplaced, and on several occasions interacting with hospitality staff, I wished I spoke more German.

By the way, I actually did encounter one of those Anglophone tourists. At a supermarket down the road from my apartment, the gentleman behind me at the checkout asked the operator, in a British accent, “What time do you close?” The operator stared blankly, unsure what to do. “Je ne parle pas anglais.” Overhearing this, I stepped in to translate for them. I don’t expect visitors to be able to ask that in French, but I was slightly taken aback that it was the operator who thanked me, and not the tourist.

So I’m exaggerating when I say that everyone speaks English. But it’s the default common ground when two parties don’t share a native tongue.

In other ways, too, it astonishes me just how widespread the use of English is in Europe. I don’t just mean that lots of people speak it, or that signs and menus are often translated into it. Brands use English phrases as titles of marketing campaigns or products otherwise in French. My gym, Basic-Fit, has clubs in five countries, none of which are Anglophone, but its slogans are in English. Brussels Airport, serving a French–Dutch bilingual city with key EU organs, is mostly monolingually English (and impressively efficient). I sometimes get the feeling that a millennial’s ability to speak English is a signal of their openness to the world.

Banner in shopping mall with slogan in English: “Unexpected Days.” Then, in French: “Pour une rentrée très classe.”
Translation at bottom left: “* Les journées inattendues.”

The cognitive dissonance for me is that while English keeps popping up… well, let’s just say it’s very obvious that it’s no one’s mother tongue. I’ve learnt a lot about French by listening to French people speak English and reading mistranslated notices. (I appreciate this, because I learn stuff and it hints at what I probably sound like speaking French.)

Sign: “Your office will be cleaned tomorrow. Would you please get rid of it in order to the work of our service agent?”
Of course, would be very happy to!

I should say, I’m no stranger to people speaking English as a second language. I attend an American university with plenty of foreign students and was involved in the international English-language debate circuit for seven years. But in those places, English is the working language, a majority of people are native or near-native speakers, and a high level of proficiency is sort of a prerequisite to being around in the first place.

That’s not the case here. On one hand, this makes it even more impressive that English has a foothold at all. On the other, it feels like English is everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously.

It’s perhaps this that makes me feel self-conscious. At work, like everywhere else, I’m the only native English speaker in my team, but it’s still the language we use whenever a non-French speaker is party to the conversation.

In a weird way, this means I’ve had some way to pay forward the patience my French friends have afforded me. Two of my colleagues (neither of whom are French) have jumped on what for them seems to be a rare opportunity to spend so much time around a native English speaker — not just speaking English, since they would’ve been doing that anyway, but asking questions about English that non-natives might lack an instinct for. A third (who is French) has had me proofread some work in English, which has occasionally involved correcting corrections that other French speakers had made.

I have to admit, some pretty basic questions about English have thrown me off. I knew the verb “to ask” was tricky, but I wasn’t consciously aware that it had this many structures. But I’m fascinated enough by languages to have thought a fair bit about how English works, which has helped me to be slightly more insightful than “that sounds weird”.

That I have this opportunity to be useful just reinforces what’s been steadily sinking in: that Johannes’ advocacy wasn’t a vision. It’s the current reality, and I’ve spent the last three months living in it. I still feel that as an English speaker I can’t really get behind it, it still feels unreal to me, and I’d still discourage other native Anglophones from using the excuse not to learn a foreign language (and I do have friends who think like this). But having seen it in action, I feel compelled to concede that if I had grown up anywhere else, I’d probably be advocating the use of English as a common medium instead.