Hello, bonjour, guten Tag, buenos dias and Добър ден. We are expats. Many of us are frequent travellers too. Most of us have been to countless countries, either living there or just visiting them. There are differences in every single one of them, when it comes to the language they speak, as well as those they are likely to learn or understand.
Also, there are important languages, in the sense that many people speak them, and less important ones, used by small peoples. Only 1.7 per cent of all Europeans speak Bulgarian, while 33 per cent speak English, either as a native or learned language. One would have assumed that more Europeans speak the world language, but they don’t. Out of all Europeans, 22 per cent speak German and 20 per cent speak French. While, from a global perspective, Spanish is more “important” than English, only 13 per cent of all Europeans speak it.
As a native English speaker, you are lucky, in many places. But the kind of conversation you can have with the average French citizen, in English, will not get you very far. In Germany, the average person might understand the basics, like where you are from and how you feel today. They will be able to answer as well, up to a certain point, at which the average German’s English language skills are exhausted. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, that will not happen. Discuss world politics with bus drivers, or quantum physics with anyone, and you will be in the middle of a discussion held in fluent English.
In Bulgaria, lots of people speak languages, for several reasons. It is surprising how many elderly Bulgarians speak German. As we all know, young Bulgarians are generally quite good at English, at least many of them.
There is also discrimination, based on languages. While western Europeans, who have been living in Bulgaria for a long time, and still do not speak Bulgarian too well, will be seen as foreigners, who do not need it, since they speak English, Spanish, French or German at work. A Bulgarian, Bosnian or Turkish citizen, on the other hand, who lives in the U.K. or Germany and does not speak English or German too well, will be seen and criticized as a person who does not want to integrate.
In Sofia’s educational system, there are two sides. At school no. 19, my daughter’s so-called English teacher did not speak a word of English, seriously. I tested her, by asking her a simple question. At the city’s excellent foreign language schools, it’s the exact opposite. Very good teachers, among them natives, are at work at the Galabov School, which offers intensive German in 8th grade. The same applies to the many comparable institutions, which teach English, French, Spanish or even Hebrew.
Could it be that our expat children speak more languages well, than we do? Plus, they are less likely to develop accents in any foreign language, if they move to a country, in which that language is spoken, before they become teenagers. Sign up a 3-year-old German child at a kindergarden in Cincinnati, and he will speak English within two weeks. Throw a 45-year-old Kraut into a Bulgarian office, and he might never speak that language properly.
Diplomats, e.g. from the United States, seem to be the only ones who are doing it properly: At the main diplomatic school in the Washington D.C. area, they study the most exotic languages, including Bulgarian, before they even think of leaving. They come prepared.