English In Europe: Can You Speak It?

This post is brought to you in partnership with Kaplan International.

The short answer to this post title is yes. English really is the world language and if you were lucky enough to be born as a native speaker of this tongue then backpacking and travelling just got that little bit easier. The long answer however is a little more complicated then ‘yes’ and it’s a topic that I find quite fascinating and has resulted in many conversations with expat friends over here.

To draw specifically from my own experiences having backpacked Europe and currently living in The Netherlands – some countries are simply better at speaking English than others. But why is this? Is it a degradation of their culture? Is it helping their country on a global scale? I’m not going to go all economical on you, but I love thinking about these sorts of points.

Let me first point out that no matter WHAT country you are in (whether it’s France or Sweden) ALWAYS try and make an effort in the local tongue. I’m not talking about in-depth political discussions here, I’m talking “Hello”, “Thank You” & “Goodbye”.

The benefits of doing this are astounding. You will make more local friends and people will appreciate that you’re trying. People who may not normally bother speaking to you at all may actually try to have a conversation with you in part English part their own language. Get a phrase book or an iPhone app or whatever – but don’t be that person who walks around everywhere talking to people in English without even giving a salutation of some kind in their own tongue.

In hostels English is THE language, there is certainly no doubt about it. You’ll see Germans talking with Spaniards and a Swedish person listening in with a Hungarian following the conversation in the corner whilst playing a guitar. If you want to travel the world and cannot speak a word of English, you’re in for a tough (but surely enlightening) time.

That’s not to say that I’m pro English, I don’t believe that everyone should have to speak English nor will I ever force English upon someone who doesn’t want to speak it. In fact I wish on an almost a daily basis that I was a master linguist and could at least speak Spanish, French, Dutch and German. I even dare to say that knowing English as a native is a hindrance more than a help to learning another language as it is so commonly found in almost every country in Europe (and most of the world). It’s difficult to choose to speak poorly in another language when so many Europeans are already so adept and willing to speak English.

To get back to my original point though, why are some countries so much better at speaking English than others? I can guarantee you that the majority of people from The Netherlands or Sweden can speak better English than those of France or Germany. In my opinion, there is a deceptively simply reason for this. To support my theory, check out this interesting info graphic and then we’ll discuss:

Infographic via the KIC Blog

Apart from all the fun and quirky facts (I’m still eagerly waiting to be called a Muggle by someone who learned English from Harry Potter), do you notice a trend there?

A whopping 82% of people said that they learned English via TV programmes followed by a staggering 79% of people via films.

I remember once I was camping in Ireland and I met this French guy, he was learning English by watching Gladiator over and over again. What a legend! Plus, it’s a great movie!

Let’s go back to my example above, using the countries The Netherlands and Sweden versus Germany and France in terms of English speaking capabilities. There is one thing that is consistent across the board for these two groups of countries. Sweden and The Netherlands keep the majority of TV shows and all films in their original form (and add subtitles) and France and Germany use voice overs (dubbing) for everything.

It’s crazy. For example there is a French voice for George Clooney and Angelina Jolie – these voice actors make a LIVING based on the success or failure of that actor. I can’t imagine that the French voice for George Clooney can go right ahead and become the voice for another prominent actor – that would be way too weird because as far as some people are concerned he IS George Clooney.

According to Wikipedia 56% of Germany and 36% of France are English speakers, compared to 87% in The Netherlands and 89% in Sweden. That’s some pretty telling figures – and I think a LOT of it comes down to whether the country dubs their TV shows and films or not.

I find it interesting to compare Holland and France – the Dutch have embraced English as a ‘second language’, almost everyone here speaks it and they begin learning it at school from a young age. Compare this to France where a large majority of people are still quite resistant to the idea of learning English. I completely admire their determination to keep their culture intact BUT from an observational point of view I would point out that the Dutch culture and way of life has in no way been affected by promoting English within the education system and on TV & films.

  • They still talk Dutch to each other when everyone can understand it.
  • They still have all their quirky Dutch traditions.
  • They still promote and value the Dutch language as their first priority.
  • They still love and make cheese (and American cheddar is nowhere to be found).

If anything English is only helping Holland by giving their youth more opportunities and attracting global businesses to settle here with their European head offices. I love the sound of the French language (who doesn’t?) and of course I hope people will continue to speak it for hundreds of years to come (I want to learn it myself one day!) – but I cannot help but wonder whether at this point they are better off embracing English in TV shows and films and within their schooling system and give their youth more of a chance to grow, travel and learn on the world stage.

This post has been entered into a blogger competition at Kaplan International for the chance to win an iPad 3 or a 2 week English course in San Francisco! Anyone with a blog can enter, but don’t make your entry better than mine ;).

16 Responses to “English In Europe: Can You Speak It?”

  1. Agnieszka says:

    Very interesting post, Tom.

    I have friends, who speak only German and friends, who speak only English, or only Polish, so meeting them all together is an interesting experience:) I act as a translator, and honestly at some point I just start mixing all the languages and it becomes tiring. It would be really nice if they all could have some knowledge of English.

    Learning languages and actually speaking a foreign language on a daily basis – we use English with my husband to communicate- has been always a very interesting topic to me. First, twenty or so years ago, I started learning English the “hard” way – from books, attending English classes in Poland, and only after we got a satellite TV at home I started watching CNN.

    On the other hand, I learned German differently. By watching German cook shows in TV (I studied in English at a German university) and by talking, or rather at first trying to talk to Germans in their native language. I definitely learned to speak German faster than English. But I write better in English than in German – different methods, different advantages and disadvantages. Now, I can’t wait to learn Dutch, which, from what I’ve read and heard so far, is a bit similar to German and English combined:)

    Ah, and in Poland we also have dubbing in movies. Honestly, after living in US, I can’t stand it πŸ™‚ It is so weird.

    PS Just one more thing, shouldn’t it be: “some countries are simply better at speaking English THAN others” rather than “then” ? πŸ™‚

    Upss, hope you don’t mind the long comment πŸ™‚
    Best wishes.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Agnieszka,

      Comments can never be to long πŸ˜€

      You’re right! It should have been ‘than’ instead of ‘then’, I’m pretty hopeless at English sometimes for someone who just wrote a post on the matter haha! (It’s been corrected now, cheers!).

      It’s so awesome that you can speak Polish, English AND German. People who speak three languages or more are always so inspiring to me! I bet you’ll have no troubles at all learning Dutch!

      The way that we all learn differently has always fascinated me as well.

      You must be a great German cook if you learnt German from the cooking shows πŸ˜€

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Trevor A says:

    I totally agree that subtitles on TV has a big part to do with a country’s ability to speak English. It’s amazing the difference in people ability to speak English, and even their accent, depending on if their country subtitles TV, rather than dubbing.

    A Finnish friend of my, who has never lived in an English speaking country, speaks fluent English and claims that she learned it entirely from watching TV.

    • Tom says:

      Yeah as much as society often says that TV crushes creativity and produces hordes of mindless zombies – you can’t help but point out it is helping people learn English all around the world πŸ˜€

  3. I agree that traveling in Europe most everyone speaks a little English. Usually it’s enough to get communicated what you need, it always works out. I agree its more kind to attempt to learn at least the basics of the local language.

    • Tom says:

      You’ll never have a problem getting around Europe with a bit of English, that’s for sure. But I think you should always learn your Hellos & Goodbyes for each new place – it’s fun to learn them anyway πŸ™‚

  4. Chantal says:

    Good points Tom and I agree with your observation on the subtitles. It does seem to go a long way in explaining the differences within Europe. I wonder if there’s any scientific evidence to back it up, though. If I feel inspired in my upcoming break, I might research this.

    As a linguist, learner of English, and teacher of English I will simply HAVE to compete with you though and write my own post. πŸ™‚ May the best man (or woman, lol) win!

  5. Anna says:

    Actually I’ve made some research about the rankings and sadly I have to say that my country (Hungary) stands at the end of the line. I thought that the situation was better but unfortunately the many years of socialism and communism has got its effects on the society of today.

  6. Juanda says:

    Well, first and foremost, what a nice blog you have here. I stumbled upon this blog when I’m searching for tips and tricks on how to backpacking to Europe. I’m planning to do it Spring 2014 (crosses my fingers hahaha) Still a long way to go, but reading things is always a good thing, don’t you agree? hahaha

    Second, I kinda agree with what you posted here, and I also notice this. I have a lot of “skype friends” from all over the world, mainly from countries who speak spanish as their native language as I’m trying to learn the language and most of them who can’t speak good english and speak with a hard accent has a dubbed tv programs, and even movies playing on theatres are being dubbed as well.
    I said kinda agree, because in my country (I come from Indonesia, so we’re actually neighbour hahaha) even though most TV programs and movies are subtitled and they play it in their native language, I can’t say that most people in Indonesia speak good english. Most of my co workers don’t speak english. People in my village don’t speak english. BUT, most of them have good passive english skill. And I think I can safely say that it’s because they watch movies in english with subtitle most of the time.

    I also learn english through movies and music, I never really pay attention to english class at school. I learned a lot of slangs from TV series such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Supernatural etc. And I’m quite happy with my english now eventhough I know that I need to work out on my grammar hahaha

    well, this is my 10 cents (it’s not 2 cents because it’s long hahaha) and thanks for writing this blog, I enjoy it a lot and love your writing style.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Juanda,

      Thanks for leaving such a nice comment! πŸ˜€

      Reading things is always awesome…in fact, as I’m sure you are aware – it’s a bit addictive πŸ˜›

      It’s interesting you mention that many people you know have a good passive English skills, so it’s more like a confidence issue of speaking the language itself?

      I really need to knuckle down soon and learn Spanish, French and Italian!!! I’m dying to be multi-lingual but haven’t put in the work required to make it happen yet πŸ˜›

      Thanks for dropping by Juanda!


      • Juanda says:

        I think it’s the lack of confidence and also most people don’t have the chance to speak english. We don’t interact with people who speak english that much, safe for people who live in tourist spots. I had to speak english with myself back in the day to practice my english hahaha
        Thank goodness that now we live in the internet era and there are so many ways to talk to people/strangers all over the world in any languages.

        Anyway it’s good that you want to learn all those languages. I’m learning Spanish myself right now and hopefully I can put it to good use when I travel to Spain. Unfortunately I’m not a linguist genius nor a diligent person. So I’m stuck with basic spanish for now.

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