Philip Hensher: Flummoxed by foreign tongues

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

Share
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

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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

John Rentoul
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...