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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: Flummoxed by foreign tongues

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

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."