Philip Hensher: Flummoxed by foreign tongues

What was the BBC doing, sending a reporter who can't speak German?

Related Topics

Dr Guido Westerwelle, head of the Free Democrats party in Germany, has just found himself in the effective position of kingmaker after the German elections, second in power only to Angela Merkel. He was in confident mood at his first press conference, and when the BBC reporter called out a question in English, he had no doubt on what to do. "If you would be so kind as to ask in German, since this is a press conference in Germany," he said in German. "Excuse me, I understand that you are from England, but just as you speak English in England, so one speaks German in Germany."

Some people, even in Germany, have criticised Westerwelle for his insistence, and suggested that in fact he couldn't answer in English. Actually, though his English is certainly not as horribly wonderful as many German politicians', and he does seem to make some trivial mistakes, it is perfectly serviceable. More curiously, what did the BBC think it was doing, sending a reporter to a press conference in Germany on the German elections, knowing that he couldn't or wouldn't speak any German?

Perhaps the reporter simply couldn't do better. German is spoken by more than 100 million people as a first language in Europe, making it the language with the largest number of speakers in the EU. Yet fewer and fewer British people speak it. It may seem odd to Dr Westerwelle, but a young journalist might never have been given any opportunity to learn German, and it might not seem obvious to him that he was missing much.

One study, last year, showed that the numbers studying German at universities have fallen from 2,288 in 1998 to 610 last year. Those taking A-level showed similar collapses across the board, but with German taking the biggest hit. I first noticed something was up when I started teaching at a university five years ago. A couple of times, I handed out a paragraph of Le Rouge et le Noir or a poem by Brecht to make a point. Twenty years ago, you would always have found a few members of an English class who had taken a foreign language and could translate something straightforward. But now even a rudimentary grasp of a foreign European language seems a matter of the utmost professional specialisation.

We don't mean to be rude, in speaking to foreigners slowly and in English, assuming that they all speak our language since we certainly can't speak theirs. Quite often, indeed, when you're in a European country, someone will assume that you don't really want to speak their language, even if you're doing your best, and reply in English anyway.

But I do think it's terribly rude. Dr Westerwelle was perfectly within his rights to tick off the reporter. A press conference in Germany, relating to a German election, held by a German politician; what language did anyone think it was going to be held in? The mere 100 or so million people who speak this language don't have many weapons against the encroachment of English into their own affairs, but one of them is this: to look down their noses at their pig-ignorant neighbours and say: "So wie es in Großbritannien üblich ist, dass man dort selbstverständlich Englisch spricht, so ist es in Deutschland üblich, dass man hier Deutsch spricht."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page


Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride