Seeing true despair light up a man’s eyes is an experience that stays with you, especially if you’re the one who caused it. The last time it happened was a few months ago, in a restaurant in Vienna. It was, slightly absurdly, the first time I’d been in a country where I did not speak the national language even a little bit.
I learned German at school but only for two years, between the ages of nine and 11. I can count to ten and declare that I want – please – some bread and honey, and that is that. Of course, everyone spoke English flawlessly, but I still felt uncomfortable, like an inconsiderate guest. One evening I had some drinks with a British friend and, well-lubricated, we marched into a Spanish restaurant. The waiter opened the door and greeted us with a cheery “¡buenas tardes!”, a mistake he would soon come to regret.
Spanish, he learned the hard way, is a language I do speak. I was beside myself, and proceeded to both order and make small talk in his native tongue. It would be hard to adequately describe the extent to which he did not play along. At no stage did he use a word with me that was not English.
Like the apocryphal Canute, I fought and fought against the tide, and it achieved nothing. Was I being selfish? Yes! But then again, so was he. Spanish is a language he can speak whenever he wants; tourists are the ones who can help him practise his English. To hell with my well-meaning por favors – our accidental Esperanto is far more useful to him.
Really, English is useful to all of us. Thanks to the internet, it is now spoken by more people than ever. It may be heavily accented and broken or limping, but everyone wants to have a go. I spent two months in Italy last year and, by the end, my only linguistic prowess was to make an “eeeh” sound when I was idly thinking, as opposed to a more Anglo-Saxon “hmmm”.
It is unlikely that things will change anytime soon. Smartphones and the dawn of AI mean that people won’t even have to learn a language in order to fit in; the machines will smoothly take over, and everyone will understand everyone else. Well, on the surface at least. It’s probably a good thing, but that doesn’t mean it won’t lead to a more charmless world.
As Olga Tokarczuk wrote in her novel Flights, “There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us – we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is the real language!”
One of life’s great joys is to go through those secret languages, have a look and a sniff around, then pilfer them, grab everything we can in the time that we have. Sure, cariño means “darling” and chéri but they’re not all the same, their shapes and textures are different, they’re siblings and not twins.
By learning a language you learn about the people who live in it. You can tell that Italians like to take their time from the way they endlessly stretch their allora, and hearing a sharp non mais ça va tells you everything you need to know about the short temper of the French.
Using English as a neutral zone is convenient but often means relinquishing the depth you can gain by entering someone’s world. There is a reason why therapy has been found by numerous studies to be most effective when conducted in one’s mother tongue. One group of researchers even found it to be twice as useful than when done in a second language. What we say is who we are.
Technology might appear like the perfect answer to the arduous and lengthy process of language learning, but it isn’t a shortcut that should be taken lightly. Many of our societies’ recent problems have come from people’s failure to try and understand one another. Choosing to solely use imperfect English or opaque softwares as intermediaries can be handy in the short term, but will it really build a world worth living in?
[See also: Languages reflect the societies that use them]