Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Why c'est useful to be able to parler a bit dans le local lingo

It's official: the language that can save your life is English. Don't take my word for it; read the response of Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, when invited to address a conference in France, in French: "I regret that I am not a French speaker, because I was a captain in the Merchant Navy and English is the language that can save you."

Two groups of British people will, regrettably, take comfort from the president's honesty: zealous patriots may celebrate the apparent supremacy of English above the language of our nearest neighbour; and prospective travellers could interpret the president's comments as confirmation that there is no point learning a foreign language. Wherever you travel, they will conclude, speaking English is a life-saver.

How sad. As you will, no doubt, have discovered, even a smattering of a local language is an asset. Not only are you better placed to argue with taxi drivers at the airport and order something vaguely palatable and non-lethal for dinner, but being able to converse with the local people helps you unlock all sorts of doors and adds an extra dimension to a journey. The better your linguistic abilities, the more you gain from a trip - and the more you can give back to the host community.

That's the theory, at any rate. But how do the leaders of the travel industry measure up? I talked to the people responsible for sending tens of millions of Brits abroad each year, and found a very mixed ability class. In which languages, I asked, (a) are you fluent; (b) can you get by; and (c) can you avoid arrest and decline unsavoury propositions?

This last category prompted some interesting responses. Michael Cawley, the deputy chief executive of Ryanair, looked at me oddly when I posed the question, then said: "I'm fluent in Irish and English, but why on earth would I want to decline any unsavoury proposition?" And Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides, maintained: "It is easier to avoid arrest, or indeed unsavoury propositions, by appearing entirely incapable of any intelligent communication. Arresting someone who can't understand the basics ('You're nicked', etc) is clearly taking away part of the fun, and looking a bit of a headache in the hours ahead."

He confessed that, "I'm a pitifully bad linguist", but went on to demonstrate an admirable tenacity at overcoming the handicap of having English as a mother tongue: "I've done Spanish, Italian, and a teach-yourself-Greek course. I can communicate half-decently (and a little better than that in a bar, late at night) in Spanish and Italian. And I am almost fluent in French in Morocco, though much less so in France."

TOP OF the class is Neil Taylor, founder of Regent Holidays and the man who organised the first tourist trips from the UK to destinations as diverse as the People's Republic of China, Albania and Cuba. He is fluent in French and German; gets by in Mandarin and Estonian; and has got out of trouble in Spanish, Italian and Albanian (though he regrets only in the Gheg dialect from the north of the country).

The bosses of Britain's mainstream tour operators are more adept at language than many of their package-holiday customers. Manny Fontenla-Novoa, who runs Thomas Cook, is fluent in Spanish, the language of our favourite package holiday destination. He can also get by in Portuguese and Italian, and knows the basics in French and German. The latter must be particularly useful since Thomas Cook is now German-owned. Thomson, too, is part of a German company, so it is good news that Peter Rothwell, who runs Thomson, is fluent in both French and German.

Britain's leading long-haul holiday company, Kuoni, is Swiss-German owned - and the managing director, Sue Biggs, claims to be able to decline unsavoury invitations in Swiss-German as well as Thai and Swahili. She gets by in French and Italian, and claims fluency in "English and Yorkshire".

Paul Goldstein, of the adventure operator Exodus, says he is fluent in American, Canadian and Australian as well as English; he can get by in French; and has avoided arrest in Spanish. "Of course," he adds (with foreign tongue firmly in cheek), "I know the basic tenets of the Central African Chewa dialect, a sadly deteriorating vernacular, which was invaluable when I found myself there for three months in 1992."

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