The power of speech may elude us, but we can still make a stir in the bar

Language – both foreign and the mother tongue – confounds the British, but sobering research reveals that we’re never lost for words in a boozer

Let us say that you have plenty of time on your hands and, just for the sake of argument, that you are deficient in intelligence. What better way to occupy the empty hours than to compile the Bumper Book of Obvious Research?

I can see the reviews now. “A devastating indictment of the unusual and interesting”, “Gloriously unsurprising”, “Makes a vicarage tea party look like a vicarage tea party”. It would without doubt be a big book. Though we live in a world of excess and have become accustomed to ever greater grotesquerie, it is still surprising that so many people are prepared to spend so much money and expend so much effort in surveying the commonplace. More remarkable still that they hold up the results for inspection and invite us to marvel.

Though commonsense would suggest that the perpetrators are simple-minded and profligate, they are in truth cunning in a clumsy sort of way. Since they have a cause to advance, involving more often than not their self-promotion, and since statistics, their malleability notwithstanding, have a persuasive force, a survey’s findings may bestow a bogus authenticity; no matter that they merely affirm the obvious.

So an organisation called Sport England spends £6m on “discovering” that half of the population is fat and lazy and does not exercise. And a survey for BBC’s Panorama programme “reveals” that people who take out mortgages without being able to repay them are more likely than others to have their homes repossessed. Well, as they say in the North, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.

This week brings a late edition to the Bumper Book. An organisation, which I won’t name since that might encourage it further to add to the mountain of nugatory matter, announces – hold on to your hat – that Britons are not good at speaking foreign languages. To gain this insight, for want of a more accurate word, YouGov spent an undisclosed amount of time and money interviewing 2,000 men and women across the country. It found that two-thirds of UK residents do not speak a foreign language. Also, despite Spain being the most popular tourist destination for UK travellers abroad, nearly nine in ten don’t know how to ask for general directions in Spanish and more than four out of five are not able to follow basic directions such as “left”, “right” and “straight”. 

The purpose of the research was to promote a language learning programme, but what it really achieves is to remind us – should we want reminding – that we have a wealthy, poorly-educated proletarian population that travels abroad for short spells, usually in search of sensual pleasures and, though on foreign soil, remains thoroughly British in outlook and habit. We are an island people with a rich and beautiful language of our own and have no need of any other. Thanks to the pervasive influence of the US, English is a lingua franca throughout the world and the travelling Briton is a beneficiary.

That much we already know and the authors of the report, perhaps sensing that even by the standards of most surveys they are wading too deeply into the banal, become a little desperate, hence the following: “Interestingly, the survey also found that a considerably larger number of Britons know how to ask for a drink at the bar in a foreign language, than can ask for general directions. For example, only 13 per cent of Britons can ask for directions in Spanish, but more than double know how to ask for a drink at the bar.”

Isn’t that word “interestingly” priceless? Heaven knows, we are a crapulous nation and unashamedly so. If there is one eternal truth in God’s universe it is that the travelling Brit will have at the forefront of his brain, be it no bigger than a walnut, which is often the case, the desire for a drink. Wherever in the world he sets down his flip-flopped foot, his instinct will lead him unfailingly to the bar. Why speak a foreign tongue when you can vomit in a dozen languages? And fluently, too.

If this survey was intended to shock or surprise it fails on both counts. For true dismay and despondency you need only consider how few of us English speak English. Yes, of course we converse, but increasingly in an ugly, brutish, stunted version of our glorious mother tongue. Listen to those Brits abroad, hear their grunts and glottal stops, their interlarding of every sentence with the f-word, and ask yourself, is this the language of Shakespeare and Milton?

I wonder how many foreigners, especially Europeans, speak better, purer English than the English. If only we knew, that really would be interesting.

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