What do my Polish colleague, Russian best friend, Dutch physiotherapist and Greek dentist have in common? They all speak perfect English. Perfect, lilting, full-of-nuance, cracking-smart-jokes English. On hearing this kind of linguistic gymnastics, most of us English speakers revert to our tired excuses, like “Why do I need to learn a new language? It’s usually not hard to find someone who speaks at least a little English.” Or there’s this one: “But which language should I learn?”
If you’re Indonesian or Russian or Swedish, it makes sense to learn English—it’s one of the most common lingua francas. This is true, and I’ve turned facts like this into excuses I’ve clung to with a death grip. But here’s the thing: That Greek dentist? His wife is French, and he grew up in Germany so he’s three steps ahead in the Language Olympics while most of us in England couldn’t qualify for an egg-and-spoon race. If money = choice, then language = opportunity. It’s no coincidence that a few memorised phrases will get you that free cookie alongside your Paris morning coffee, or a friendly smile in a Japanese noodle bar. CVs are bouncing around the workplace so intensely it can seem that if you didn’t build a two-seater plane and fly it single-handedly to deliver aid packages before you were 18, you can forget it in terms of a good job. Perhaps a second language is the edge you need?
If anything, in a worst-case scenario a thank you in Greek may just get you that discount off the fitting of your new braces. So if you’re reading this, Mikos, “Ευχαριστώ. I definitely need a fitting!”