Multilingualism in Europe

Feb 22nd, 2006, 09:03 PM
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Multilingualism in Europe

Listening to Radio Netherlands a little while ago I learned that 56% of Europeans can converse in two or more languages. In the Netherlands the figure is 91%. Now I feel even worse about those discontinued Italian lessons.
Neil_Oz is offline  
Feb 22nd, 2006, 10:12 PM
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Converse is perhaps a strong word. Communicate would be a better choice.

Usually it's two languages, and the second language is English. Among those who are native speakers of English, multilingualism is far less prevalent, since they already speak the language that most other people speak. Also, the ability to speak several languages declines as one moves from north to south in Europe. Scandavians and the Dutch are often fluent in English or some other languages, but Italians, French, and Spaniards seem to struggle. Apparently Latin cultures don't encourage language learning very much.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Feb 22nd, 2006, 10:19 PM
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Actually AnthonyGA, students in Italy are normally required to take at least 3 years of English, plus most study Latin which is a help in learning many languages. I will say I cannot compare the younger Italians ability to converse or communicate in other languages versus those in the northern parts of Europe but the Italians are sure way ahead of us in the US.

A joke: Q. What do you call someone who can communicate in two languages? A. Bilingual

Q. What do you call someone who can only communicate in one language?
A. An American.

Hi Neil!!!
LoveItaly is offline  
Feb 22nd, 2006, 10:25 PM
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What Italians are required to take and what they can actually do are uncorrelated. The French and the Japanese take years of English, too, but they can barely say hello most of the time.

In my experience dealing with people from all over Europe, the Italians are among the worst English speakers around. The French are probably next in line. The Spanish aren't as bad as they used to be. The Dutch are usually the best English speakers, often learning it well enough to speak it without an accent.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 12:35 AM
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As a complement to Anthony's remarks, I think it is also easier for a German, a Dutch person, a Dane, etc, to speak English, due to the common origins of the languages ( the german "hund" and the english "hound" are the same words after all,with the same saxon roots, while "cane" or "chien" all come from the latin "canis" -the dog), then people with languages of latin origin. Conversely, are English speakers that good in Spanish or Italian?
Trudaine is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 12:50 AM
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...but the romance languages have inherited many English words too and I dare say it would be next to impossible for any English speaking person to learn to speak Dutch (with all the ch's) and German too as accent free as especially the Dutch do.
xyz123 is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:03 AM
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As a European, having ment plenty of European students from lots of countries, I can tell from my experience that the reason why people from certain countries speak much better English than from other countries.

I do agree that there's a difference between the Germanic languages and the Romanic languages, especially for learning a language 'by play' instead of hard studying.

But I know for example Italians who read and write English perfectly, but barely speak a word, while Portuguese for example speak English perfectly well and Germans usually have a strong accent in their English.

The reason is: movies and TV ! In countries where they have subtitles and therefore listen to spoken English in British and American productions all the time (Scandinavia, Netherlands, Flemish part of Belgium, Portugal) the accent is FAR better than in countries where they have dubbing (France, Italy, Spain, but also Germany).

That also explains why children aged 12 in Flanders already have a base of English, although they've never had a single class (in Flanders you start learning French at age 10 and English at age 14).
stardust is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:29 AM
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Thank you stardust for explaining a conundrum: why so many Portuguese speak good English and so few Spaniards do. I'd assumed that it was due to a perception in Spain that more tourists - especially Americans - would speak some Spanish. Your explanation makes more sense!
Suelynne is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:31 AM
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That's true; my children start French at 10, and at 5 hours per week they learn very quickly.
As a Dutch person living in Belgium, I can say that I converse in Dutch and English, communicate in French and German, and manage basic Spanish.
English-speaking friends have told me that it's hard to learn Dutch, since everyone will insist on speaking English to them. Learning a few phrases in the language of the country you are visiting is always appreciated though.
Tulips is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:50 AM
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Very true, stardust,
Some years ago, 2 local radio stations, one in the flemish part of Belgium and one on England's east coast set up a radio programme together for kids from 8 to 12 years. One of the items was a possibility to swap toys and other stuff. The Flemish kids spoke english with the english kids over the phone, without having ever had a course of english.
I am convinced it is mostly due to english speaking TV series with subtitles.
baldrick is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:51 AM
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I learned my first Dutch from reading the subtitles of Simpsons episodes on VT4 (a Flemish TV station) and from puzzling out the Flemish advertisements on the walls in metro stations.
It is much easier for a European to learn English than for an American (or a Brit) to learn a foreign language. Europeans, esp. the Dutch and Belgians, are bombarded with English language tv shows, music, and other media (Germans aren't and are starting to feel the pinch--a recent German labor study found that there were plenty of engineering jobs available in Germany, but the jobs usually required a good command of the English language and there weren't enough applicants who could meet that requirement). When we lived in Germany, my knowledge of the language improved exponentially simply from watching German detective shows.

However, even the Flemish and Dutch linguist champs need help on occasion. Apparently they can't follow other Dutch speakers that well--on the Flemish version of the TV show "Cops" (which follows the Brussels police around), the show's producers decided that Dutch subtitles were needed even when the Brussels police were speaking Dutch (Flemish).
FWIW, last year, while loitering around a Brussels street corner, I was stopped by a middle-aged Dutch couple trying to find their way to the Sablon. They couldn't speak (or understand) more than a few words of English or French.
BTilke is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:21 AM
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I have a few Dutch friends and none of their parents can speak English, but they can speak German.

I think the statistics that Neil quoted at the beginning came from a report that outlines the problem that immigrants to the Netherlands are not learning Dutch.

The report says that 75% of Dutch can speak English, 67% German and 12% French.

I work with quite a few Swedes and their English is virtually faultless.

Geordie is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:38 AM
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i agree with the comment that brits and americans don't learn a second language because it is generally not required. some people in these countries are required to learn a second language for work but this is quite rare (and i realise that some people do need to learn spanish for example, in certain parts of the US). but generally language study is more to enrich oneself, not undertaken for a real need.

therefore, whilst many europhiles laud continentals for their bilingualism, it is really just a product of need rather than some noble sense of connecting with other peoples or anything like that. native english speakers are just lucky that their language happens to rule the world at the moment.

european countries are very small and in most industries or professional pursuits, english is an absolute must. for example, it is very common for italian, german, etc companies to put bids out to tender in english. how far can you go working for a danish or swedish drug company knowing only danish or swedish? can a german engineer working for seimens get by without english? very unlikely.
walkinaround is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:42 AM
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To defend the southern europeans, I think the younger generations are taking language learning - especially english - much more seriously, and are generally much more cosmopolitan than their forbears. As a case in point, I have a small place in Puglia (the italian heel). The previous owner is in his 70s, and speaks a local dialect, his 50ish daughter speaks 'normal' italian and knows a few words of english, whilst her 20 year old daughter speaks fluent english.

In defence of english speakers (not knowing a second language is not an American problem), I think it's incredibly hard to both learn and retain a foreign language when you're not getting constant exposure to it. I had 7 years of French classes at school, so at 16 I was almost fluent. I can now barely stumble out a sentence. It doesn't help when you try to speak a foreign language and everyone replies to you in English.
Kate is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:47 AM
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didn't Franco outlaw learning a foreign language? I heard that once never verified it.
sansman is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:49 AM
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How long before we need to be learning Mandarin? or Hindi?
PatrickLondon is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:52 AM
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I made this observation during a tour I did of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic last June...

When I had first visited these countries in the early 70's, for obvious political reasons Russian was a mandated second language although forced to do so, many resented it. Among the older generation, German was the 2nd language and once again, for obvious reasons, it was resented too.

What impressed me this time around is that English has become almost the 2nd language. I asked my Czech guide if that was so and he said absolutely...the people understand why it is important to learn English if they want to get ahead either domestically or outside the country. In the museums, in almost every case, the explanations on posters, paintings whatever were almost always in the local language and English. Hardly saw any Russian or German. As soon as we got to Austria and Germany, in the museums signs were only in German.

Of course I felt so limited when I took a train from Frankfurt to Paris and a staff member doing a survey for DB (the German National railroad) approached me and said, "Guten Tag." And I said, "I'm soory I don't speak German." He said, "Why not?" I said, "it's really too difficult for me." He laughed and said, "Come now, difficult? Three year old children have no trouble learning German." Don't know if he was kidding or not.
xyz123 is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:55 AM
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Actually I've just remembered, I used to knopw a French woman who'd lived in England about 15 years, and was actually starting to forget her French! Her mother was dismayed, as she couldn't hold a completely fluent conversation with her. Seemed staggering to me that you could lose your mother tongue.

Also, I shared a house with a Dutch girl at University. She had come to an English University to study French and German. So she was learning 2 foreign languages in a foreign language! Apparently, she told me, the art to fluency is to think, as well as talk, in the language you're speaking. If you try and translate in your head, you'll never be fluent.
Kate is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:56 AM
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I have that same problem in France where presumably I can speak some French (well I can read signs, and newspapers)....I will say in my best French "Je voudrais un vin rouge" and the waiter would look at me and say "which one?" I guess American(or English) emenates from what I say..(or perhaps from wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a t shirt!)
xyz123 is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 03:05 AM
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xyz123, that's the Frenmch for you - they'd rather speak to you in English than have their language murdered by your (or our) mangled attempts.

I find the italians much more accomodating. They'll wait patiently forever while I drag out a poor sentence, and then compliment me on my efforts (this mostly in the south, where english speaking tourists are still a novelty rather than an annoyance).
Kate is offline  

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