Thursday, June 20, 2019
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Sky Views: If Britons answer in foreign languages, do not speak again in English world news

By Deborah Haynes, Foreign Affairs Editor

An appeal to anyone outside an English-speaking country: If a Briton speaks in your language and tries to speak in your own language, do not answer in ours just because you can.

It's demoralizing and, if we do not push and need help, it's rather rude.

I have not counted how many times I've had the courage to try a little French in a French-speaking country, just to have the person I addressed shot in English again.

I imagine the other person just trying to be polite instead of practicing a bit of English at my expense, but at least giving me a chance.

Deborah broadcast for the Brexit summit from Brussels
Deborah broadcast for the Brexit summit from Brussels

I do not say that my French is fluent – that's definitely not it – but I did a French high school diploma and then worked for Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, where I could get my job from which I translate French into French had an article on the Japanese bond market bubble.

So I can just ask for directions or, as happened this week in Luxembourg and again in Belgium, understand a hotel bill and the answer.

I was sadly grateful to have received largely English answers to my French questions. When I ordered a pain au chocolat and a cup of tea in French (not hard) on Friday in a Brussels café, I received an answer … also in French!

The waiter asked if I wanted milk with my tea, which I answered with "Yes please" [oui, s’il vous plait – see, it’s really not hard],

Deborah tested her French skills in a Brussels café
Deborah tested her French skills in a Brussels café

I was told (still in beautiful French) that the milk was in a jug at the corner of the counter.

"Merci beaucoup," I said [thank you very much]he was referring more to his French conversation than to the instructions on where to find the milk.

At a time when foreign language proficiency in UK schools is miserable and people's ability to speak English is so high, it is easy for British women to be lazy and not bother with just one foreign language to learn some foreign words that you can tolerate overseas.

In this way, we miss so much in understanding another country, its culture, and its ability to connect with those who do not speak English.

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As a student, I decided to study Japanese at the university because I was fascinated at an early age by the idea of ​​a language that is completely alien to my own.

I was also thrilled with the speed, even though I could not understand a word.

I was lucky enough to meet and love a family that lived in a rural town on the west coast of Japan. They included a girl named Yoshiko my age, who was learning English (which she spoke brilliantly), her younger brother, her parents and a grandmother, as well as a much larger family.

I first spent time with them before I started studying, when literally the only words I knew in Japanese were: konnichi wa [hello] and sayonara [goodbye],

They helped me patiently with learning, with Yoshiko initially using her English, but over time she encouraged me to speak Japanese and only answered in her own language.

It was the best way to improve.

Japanese were encouraged to respond in their native language
Japanese were encouraged to respond in their native language

After two years of Japanese teaching at Cardiff University, I spent the third year of my studies in another Japanese city, where I continued to study the language.

But even then, there were times when I met someone who responded to my ever more decent Japanese in his comparatively shaky English.

I found that particularly irritating because I was a Japanese student, trying to learn country and language.

In the end, I either replied in super-fast English that they had no hope of understanding, or pretended that I could not speak English, so they would have to continue in Japanese if they wanted to continue a conversation.

A little insidious, but it was the only way to avoid the English trap.

Now back in the UK, I have an au-pair living in my house to look after my children while I'm at work.

My current au pair is German and my German is horrible, so the argument does not work, but if I had a French au pair before, I always value talking to her in English to learn instead of using them for a comfortable French language practice.


Sky Views is a series of comments that are published by Sky News editors and correspondents every morning.

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