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Do You Speak English?

When I went to Europe for the first time as a teenager in 1969, we were told to start a conversation with locals by asking people we met if they spoke English. I am curious if people in 2021 are still asking this or do we just assume they will speek English. It seems presumptuous to just assume they are expected to know and use English.

Posted by
4417 posts

Jan, when I will be traveling to Europe, I spend at least a few months (usually much more) learning the greetings, numbers, time, etc. and the typical travel words in their language. It’s courteous to at least be able to say hello, please, thank you, excuse me, and good night in their language. Sometimes they will immediately respond in English if I’m in a more touristy location, but I enjoy the small conversations where I’m able to attempt to use their words and they respond in kind.

Yes, it’s different than 1969, or in my case in 1975. 😉

Posted by
3258 posts

My approach is very similar to Jean's. I try to learn enough of the language to get by in the usual situations and observing the courtesies . I have a reservation. I'd like to buy a ticket. How much does this cost. Can you tell me where is the closest pharmacy/ grocery/metro stop. Etc. And if I have to ask them if they speak English, I ask it in their language, not mine. Sometimes, if I ask a question in their language, they will respond in English.

Posted by
3335 posts

Like Jean, I too prepare ahead of time to learn the basics before visiting a country. Before my first trip to Italy many years ago I took a 6 week Italian class. It included everything from basic conversations, cuisine, etc. It was very helpful.

Jan, when we visited Sicily a few years ago, an American couple approached us in Ortigia who asked us if we spoke English! It ended up we had a wonderful conversation. They were doing genealogy research. We ended up inviting them to join us for dinner.

Posted by
5241 posts

I think it's definitely presumptuous to assume that anyone overseas speaks English (I guess it's OK in the UK). Like the other posters, I try to learn basic words and phrases to start a conversation, and the question "do you speak English?" for use when necessary. That usually gets me to first base (so to speak), but often we end up switching to English soon after. This fall I checked into two German hotels, knowing how to say "I have a reservation" but not much more. Both polite clerks asked if "English is better?" and I (relieved) admitted that it was, and we went from there.

The conventional wisdom is that people appreciate your effort to communicate in their language, and I think that's generally true. But sometimes they'd rather just get the transaction done in English than patiently listen to me stumble around in their language. Here and here are some tips from our host about communicating when you know little of the local language.

Posted by
8271 posts

Always start with Hello in their language before asking if they speak English.

Posted by
201 posts

I am curious if people in 2021 are still asking this or do we just
assume they will speek English. It seems presumptuous to just assume
they are expected to know and use English.

It is so, so context-dependent. In obviously true in tourist contexts (big hotels, tourist attractions in major town, etc) that everyone will speak English, and it seems fine to me to just use it from the start. But, if you are in a village or whatever? Or at a type of accommodation targeted at local rather than international tourists, like a FeWo in Germany? I guess maybe better to ask in that case? I will say, when I am travelling in countries in Europe where I don't speak the language, I tend to ask if it is OK to speak English, rather than if the other person can speak English. The vast, vast majority of us under the age of, say, 40 have had English in school, after all.

Also, and from the perspective of just one German: I don't have a particularly lot of contact with tourists in my city, but I don't mind it either way--either starting the conversation right away in English, or asking if I speak English. I am certainly not bothered or offended one way or the other. But that is of course just one opinion.

Posted by
814 posts

It is the objective of the EU that all citizens of the EU should speak at least languages at A2 level, Meaning that they can conduct their daily affairs in the language. For the under 40s that more or less true and although English is no longer an official language, most people speak or at least understand it. But it is still good practice to ask.

Posted by
11209 posts

How would you feel if someome came up to you in your hometown and started speaking to you in a language other than English?

I have seen Americans start speaking English to everyone because they just assumed everyone in the world speaks English. Then they get upset if the person doesn't understand.

I always start by asking if they speak English? Nowadays, especially in hotels, the answer is "of course." Or sometimes, they'll just start speaking English to me.

It's always polite to learn a few words in their language and quite often they will ask if you understand English. Remember, you don't have to be perfect----just understood.

One small tip......if wearing a mask, speak slower than you normally would and clearer. It's harder if they can't see your mouth.

Posted by
201 posts

although English is no longer an official language,

Doch! English is still an official language of the EU, if one is speaking about the institution, and even more so is one of the three "procedural languages". EU language rules here.


Posted by
218 posts

In my experience, within the travel/hospitality industry in Europe, virtually everybody speaks English. With so many national languages and (pre-Covid) widespread easy travel between countries, English has become the common language.

That said, as others have noted, I try to be able to do the basic social greetings and queries wherever I am headed.

Anecdote: My wife and I had just been seated in a restaurant in Berlin. When the waiter approached, I greeted him with "Guten Abend." He immediately launched into rapid German. I had to wave him down and request English. He replied it was easier for him if we had just started in English, that way he would immediately know what language to respond in.

Posted by
5450 posts

I agree with Rick's instructions to learn the courtesy words. However, every time I order in German (for example), the waiter answers me in English! And the days when no one spoke English voluntarily in France are almost over.

I am not annoyed when tourists speak to me in a foreign language on the streets of New York City.

Fair or not, multinational corporations have prioritized English as the second language for their employees. The age of the person you're speaking to is often a predictor of their comfort in English. I'm not saying we Americans are entitled to this, I'm just stating a fact.

Posted by
2316 posts

I make a point to learn the courtesy words/phrases, and know a bit more than that in French and Hungarian, so while I may start with those few feeble words, once the person hears my accent they usually make it easier for everyone by switching to English. If not, pantomime still works really well in a lot of instances.

Posted by
8100 posts

What is nice is if you ask them in their language, if they speak English. This prepares them.

Posted by
13524 posts

I cross my right index finger over the adjacent finger and tap my forehead three times as the internationally recognized symbol that I am American and only speak English.

I sat at an outside table in a wine bar one evening with a couple of Hungarian friends. We were approached by a very nice American couple who directed a question to one of my friends. A few of the words were somewhat intelligible in Hungarian, most not, then there was the constant fidgeting with the cell phone looking for translations .... we sat smiling and endured it. Finally my friend said, "walk to the end of the street, turn right, then left and you will be at the Opera House." The tourists said something else that was supposed to be Hungarian and left. My friend turned to me and asked if he was well enough dressed to look educated. And if so, why did they just spend 5 minutes asking a 30 second question? I said to impress you. He said, it would be more impressive if they thought I was educated. "Did they not notice I answered in English?" We went back to drinking.

Posted by
3258 posts

Being well dressed equates with being educated? Being educated automatically means you speak English? My German former landlady was always impeccably dressed, was educated by just about anyone's standard, and didn't understand more than a handful of English words. And I've known university professors who dressed like field hands. So much for judging books by their covers.