There's undoubtedly a poor attitude displayed by some Brits abroad. My late stepfather would declare that if someone was taking his money it was up to them to speak English. And we've all heard someone twisting a foreign word or name into a comical (or rude) English sound.
But I can't say I blame British travellers entirely – our education system must take some responsibility. Many students don’t start learning a foreign language until age 11, by which time they can feel self-conscious speaking another language in front of classmates. (A French neighbour offering to teach the language at our local primary school for free was told it wasn't necessary.) As a former Science teacher, I was once astounded to find German exchange students sufficiently fluent in English to follow the dry, diagrammatic details of GCSE-level covalent bonding – while some of their British peers struggled with the German present tense. Meanwhile as the Italian teacher for an adult evening class, I was often dismayed by my students' lack of confidence to speak aloud or participate in role plays.
I don’t mean that useful language teaching and learning is not going on in British schools. I have worked with excellent foreign language teachers and many students leave school with a working knowledge of one or more languages. But not many, and I get the impression that foreign languages are seen as a luxury rather than a mainstream essential. And unless students opt for foreign language A levels – which is increasingly uncommon – their language education is likely to end at 16.
The number of students choosing to study French or German at A Level has halved in the past 15 years. And fewer students study languages at university level every year: the number accepted onto modern foreign language degrees fell by 22% between 2010-11 and 2012-13. I think this is partly due to spending cuts – my former school is one of many that has cut down or squeezed out subjects not deemed core curriculum, including Italian. It's also because, in my experience, students are increasingly opting to study subjects they feel will make them more employable.
Their choices are understandable, but aren’t they going to be embarrassed when their European counterparts in the working world speak English, while they have a mere smattering of Spanish or French? We are doing young people a disservice by failing to recognise the importance of communication in a competitive global job market.
I would like to see language education properly funded from an age where learning still comes naturally and self-consciousness has not yet set in. 11 is too late.