I’ve only once failed to speak the host language when travelling or living abroad, in the Netherlands where everyone, even the street cleaners, seemed to speak English almost like a native. In some ways I felt robbed. My attempts to speak in Dutch were generally met with smiles and answers in English, so I made much less headway with the language than I’d have liked.
But what a difference it makes to try to speak in language of one’s hosts. Even in a small way, like in the pub in Nth Wales that was full of Welsh speakers and not very welcoming until I said “Diolch” (thank you) to the barmaid – and the sun came out! Just that small gesture of respect, that small acknowledgement of the Welsh language, was enough to make everyone in the pub our friends that afternoon.
The prize in St Petersburg was far greater. A courteous word in Russian to one of the formidable Babushkas who guard the aisles of The Hermitage led to a whole room being opened for us. The contents – the oldest of the ice burials from prehistoric Siberia, mummified horses with tattooing visible on their skin, a huge felt tapestry from Persia – were too delicate to be illuminated permanently. We had a guided tour for two, then were left there alone for a few minutes to take it in at our own pace, before the smiling woman turned off the lights and closed the doors again.
Then there are the afternoons in bars and cafes throughout France where the only language I speak really conversationally, French, has brought hours of debate, conversation, sharing of local specialities. In Spain and Portugal, travelling away from the tourist trails, a little language gets you taken in by the whole community.
This is contrast to the loathing felt, with justification, for the arrogance of the stereotypical British expat, refusing to speak the language, eat the food or acknowledge in any way their host country in what seems like a huge, extended, studied and deliberate insult.
If I were to actually move to a country where a language other than English were spoken, it wouldn’t occur to me to try to get by in English. Without the language you can’t experience or participate in the country you live in. The arrogance of those gold-chained, melanoma-tanned chipeaters in Spain, for example, really is repugnant.
Norm thinks it’s the other way round, that “treating inability to speak English [in England] as a matter for blame [..] is repugnant.” Indeed: “legislating about what language must be spoken or learned would be an act of gross illiberalism.”
Not if it’s the host language.
There is nothing liberal about agitating for circumstances in which – invariably – women are trapped, excluded, quite deliberately, in dress and language, by men who feel they own them as chattels. There’s nothing liberal about exclusion from social and political life. There is a genuine problem with these thing at the moment in Europe generally, not just in Britain.
To take a case where liberties are conflicting, and uphold the liberty of the oppressors, is not liberalism at all.