Don’t you understand?

Irene Macías deplores many Britons’ pitiful foreign language skills and employers’ apparent ignorance about its growing importance

June 29, 2010

On a recent flight from Madrid to a major UK airport, I witnessed an incident that brought home the beleaguered state in which modern languages find themselves in the UK. It illustrated the problem more clearly than any depressing statistics about trends in languages at school could ever do.

When the refreshments trolley was brought along the aisle, a passenger asked for “un café”. The UK flight attendant looked distinctly put out. All she could muster for an answer was a bewildered “Mmm?” The lady went on to repeat “un café”. Still no response. Fortunately, another passenger came to the rescue and interpreted: “coffee, please”. The flight attendant obliged.

A few things spring to mind. First, given that refreshment trolleys have a limited range of fare and that cabin crew must serve teas and coffees hundreds of times per day in a normal day’s work, how could it be that the member of staff could not work out that “café” may – just may – be related to “coffee”. I mean, they are not that far apart phonetically. I would have thought that this would be a big giveaway for most people, especially for those who work with an international clientele.

How impermeable must one be to other languages to be thrown so visibly by something as simple as this? And we are not talking long sentences or numbers here, heaven forbid.

So was this a case of complete linguistic inability or an attitude problem? It’s a hard call. The point is that a service provider that, by the very nature of its business, should be a champion of language skills and intercultural communication, clearly neglects these fundamental aspects and provides a standardised service where one size – English – fits all.

It is not the first time I have observed that staff working for some of the most popular commercial airlines are shamefully lacking in language skills.

My musings are all the more poignant because they happen at a time when the study of languages in the UK feels under threat. The sector has just finished its last bout of self-reflection – we seem to do this periodically – and it is trying to find ways to convey the importance of languages for any society that wishes to remain competitive and engage meaningfully with others in a multicultural world.

In the case under scrutiny here, to have such a nice chunk of the air travel market within Europe and to overlook basic skills that staff will need daily to operate successfully, is a false economy, bad management, linguistic imperialism or all three. Indeed, recruitment by these airlines should be contingent upon having or being willing to acquire such skills.

A similar situation in any other country is impossible to imagine. I know for a fact that English – the foreign language par excellence in most European countries – is not only a compulsory subject taught from primary school upwards in many countries these days, but that it is also a highly sought-after asset that multiplies a candidate’s value in the job market by a high factor.

Interestingly, according to a growing number of surveys, it is the same in the UK: employers seek graduates with language skills and language graduates get bigger salaries.

In Europe, the idea that someone could work for an airline and not speak some English...well, it’s just plain absurd. It simply wouldn’t happen. UK-based companies, however, think there’s nothing wrong with playing a recorded message in whatever the foreign language happens to be before takeoff and that’s that.

If the popularity that budget air carriers currently enjoy is anything to go by, a sizeable proportion of travellers may still be willing to compromise comfort in return for cheap travel. But who knows if we are about to witness a sea change? Who would have predicted only two or three years ago, say, that the term “carbon footprint” would enter common parlance?

Just as we are all becoming more mindful of our fragile environment, we may witness the birth of a discerning traveller who also expects a service respectful to cultural diversity and one of its most important manifestations – languages.

Irene Macías is a teaching Fellow in language and intercultural communication in the department of European studies and modern languages, University of Bath.

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