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Bureacracy With A Smile And Some English…Or Not

One Czech national who is also a fluent English speaker went undercover in her country to assess the English-language readiness of Czech public officials – and found it sadly lacking. Of course any English-speaking foreigner could do a similar experiment, but she could understand their replies and conversation in Czech…when they thought she couldn’t.

She was surprised at how difficult it was to get ahold of anyone who spoke English; she didn’t hold it against a particular person if they didn’t speak English, but considered whether they knew how to reach an employee who did, or if the person spoke another common language like German.

She also felt that other countries in the region have a better record.

How are the English language skills of public officials in your host country? Do you think they could be better…or should?

My opinion may surprise you.

In general terms, it is certainly respectful for a foreign teacher to learn some of the local language. As a pre-intermediate (intermediate if I flatter myself) speaker of one Slavic language though, I find the idea that foreigners will learn any given Slavic language well enough to really communicate before they even enter the country almost comical. It’s great if you learn, and you should definitely try, but there are practical reasons why the vast majority of people in the world do not do this in advance and, for most intents and purposes, really can’t. It is not just lazy native English speakers – what about Chinese nationals who have learned English but not Czech, or someone from Brazil who speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English?

And the situation is even more extreme in offices which exist to deal with foreigners, say, for work permit applications, or which are more or less bound to come into contact with foreigners. It’s not a barber shop or grocery store or lawyer’s office. And I would say the same for the US, which definitely relies on temporary labor of people from a certain neighboring country. In an office which processes such permits, there should absolutely be Spanish speakers available.

Similarly, many countries in the world do want native speaker English teachers – and these jobs are not built for career teachers: wages stay low (and accordingly, classes stay more affordable) because young teachers come for a year and then go. Local language competency is not a requirement for the job nor for the work permit. And in fact lack of that language is often a specific reason why an inexperienced foreign teacher is so attractive

Of course foreigners should not be let off the hook – you are in a foreign country, and you should not expect everyone to speak English – but in this day and age, English is an international language. It is not just a benefit for native English speakers to have an English speaker available in public offices, but for all those throughout the world who have learned English.