As a freelance journalist and writer, one of the ways I earn a crust is to write reports and articles about the financial services industry. Which is why I found myself at a conference in Vienna recently, writing for a software company that provides technology to hedge funds, wealth managers and the like.
The attendees came from all over Europe and the Middle East to be there. Some, like me, were from the UK. But most weren’t. There was a particularly large contingent from various parts of Scandinavia. There were also many from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as a few from further afield.
The conference was all about current trends in the investment management world, and how software can be used to tackle the industry’s challenges. In other words, highly technical subject matter that mixed complicated financial concepts with complicated technology solutions.
All the presentations were in English. Yet even as a native speaker I found some of the concepts hard to grasp. And here were many of the speakers, as well as much of the audience, dealing with the topics in their second, and sometimes third, language.
As part of my role at the conference I interviewed some of the speakers and attendees. During the lunches and coffee breaks I got a chance to chat with many more. Without exception, their level of linguistic proficiency amazed me.
It wasn’t just the technical vocabulary they needed to be able to discuss these particular financial topics. It was the mastery of colloquialisms. Having lived in Spain for many years I could recognise and admire the level of knowledge it requires to speak so ‘natively’ in another tongue.
As always, the Swedes, Danes and Dutch proved especially fluent English speakers. Mind you, in all my travels I have never met one who wasn’t. That may be a generalisation, but not much of one.
How do they do it?
Indeed, I had this conversation with a Dutch friend of ours in Spain (whose English was, inevitably, fantastic). She put it down to early and continuous exposure to the language. TV is a big part of the reason, since many English-speaking shows in the Netherlands ran with Dutch subtitles, rather than being dubbed. The welter of English-lyric songs is another factor. An education system that focuses on language learning is important too.
An article on Wikipedia supported my impressions. It quoted figures from a 2005 European Commission study, which reported that the percentage of the adult population able to converse in English was 85% in Sweden, 83% in Denmark, 79% in the Netherlands, 66% in Luxembourg and over 50% in Finland, Slovenia, Austria, Belgium and Germany.
Meanwhile, the European Commission report found only 30% of UK respondents can participate in a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue. That was the second lowest figure in the EU, with only Hungary faring worse. The EU average was 50%.
The reason for the UK’s lack of linguistic ability is evident. Language classes get low billing in the school timetable. All the main TV channels are broadcast in English. There is almost no non-English music on the major radio channels. In other words, a markedly different environment to that described to me by my Dutch friend.
Of course, part of the reason for the UK’s relatively low level of multilingual capacity is that English has become the lingua franca in so many fields: business, IT, science, entertainment and politics, to name a few.
That was apparent during dinner on the first night at my conference. I sat at a table with attendees from Colombia, Spain, Germany and Denmark. But what language did we converse in? You guessed it.
And while English is estimated to have only the third highest number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, the fact it is so widely learned as a second language means it ranks as probably the most commonly spoken globally. The only other one that competes in terms of numbers are the various Chinese languages, and they are mainly concentrated in that region.
Foreign language benefits
Yet despite the apparent ubiquitousness of English, it is crucial that any expats moving to non-English speaking parts of the world learn the native tongue. Even if you intend to live in an expat enclave in France or Mexico or China, having a good grasp of the local language will make your life easier, and happier.
It will help you:
- Manage day-to-day situations, such as buying quality food in local stores, dealing with utility companies and consulting with medical practitioners.
- Integrate into the community and make friends.
- Delve into the culture, history and social mores of the country, helping enrich your understanding and enjoyment of life there.
As a result, it will promote a sense of belonging, as well as one of achievement.
By contrast, a lack of local language skills leaves you isolated. And that can breed misunderstanding, resentment and fear.
Willingness to learn
Learning a foreign language can be a daunting prospect. It can be embarrassing too during those early stages when you fumble for words or use the wrong ones, drawing bewildered looks or laughter from the locals. But they will be impressed you are trying, and will support you as you learn.
Use this as an inspiration. Then take the time and make the effort to learn. It will be worth it.
Paul Allen is a freelance journalist and writer who moved to north-eastern Spain in 2003. He is the author of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go? The Truth About Moving Abroad And Whether It’s Right For You,” a comprehensive guide for anyone seeking advice on whether or not to move abroad. For more details about the book, and free information and advice on moving and living overseas, visit his website at http://www.expatliving101.com/.