Standing in the lobby of a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, myself and my companion are faced with a formidable challenge.
There – feet away from us – stands a woman, who advances towards us with a notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.
They do say the pen is mightier than the sword, but on this occasion it was not the pen that made is squirm…but that she was saying things neither of us could fully understand.
She was, unbelievably, speaking French.
Fortunately for my fellow traveller Daniel and I, we had a reasonable grounding in Standard Grade French, as well as some phrases here and there which we had picked up during our education.
However, after spending three nights in the political capital of the world, it struck me (although Switzerland is outside the EU) how much the EU offers us, beyond the politics of it all.
This is not about how much the EU gives us in subsidies; how much it costs; what it means for security, or sovereignty, or the movement of money and people.
What I am talking about is the cultural and linguistic benefits of being part of a collective body of nations, at a time of globalisation and rising xenophobia on the right.
I have written before about the benefits of being able to speak more than one language, and yet still my ability to speak a second language is woefully inadequate.
What struck me most about being in Switzerland was the number of times we asked “Parlez-vous anglais?” Striking, because we almost half-expected the person to be able to speak our language, but not us to speak theirs.
This was thrown into sharp relief atop the Téléphérique du Salève, on the French-Swiss border, where the women replied with “Parlez-vous Français?” to which we replied “Un peu…” – a little.
In the UK, just 14% of people feel they would be able to hold a conversation in at least two languages other than their mother tongue. This compares with the EU average of 25%, and Luxembourg, where the figure is 84%.
Luxembourg also scores high in those who can speak three extra languages; close to two-thirds.
In the EU, more than half of citizens are bilingual, versus the UK and Ireland who score the lowest rates in bilingualism.
But what is the big deal? If English is the language of science, business, diplomacy, and popular culture such as music – why should we bother?
For myself, it is to do with the history, and the identity which is brought with the language. Language roots us into our past, and provides us with identity.
It has long been a tactic of the most militant regimes in the world: to destroy a people’s identity, shared culture, and indoctrinate them into one’s own, you destroy that which links them to their past.
The value of culture and history is almost always overshadowed by the concept we now have of “value.” Namely, we think of value in monetary terms, and albeit there is evidence multilingualism has monetary benefits, the cultural value of language should not be forgotten.
Let us take Scots Gaelic an an example.
Moffat writes in his book Scotland: A History From Earliest Times of the deep connection Gaelic speakers had to the land and the animals they kept upon it.
Scots Gaelic has an enormous lexicon of colours in comparison to English, and has many more ways of describing times of methods of cultivation.
Take the word pecuniary, too. The Peso, used in Uruguay, Mexico, Columbia; Pence, obviously used in the UK – each relates to an Old Latin word, pecu.
For those who do not know, pecuniary means “relating to or consisting of money.” Pecu, the origin of pecuniary, means cattle – the ancient measure of wealth.
Our language is central to who we are, and how we understand ourselves in the world. Genealogy is a fascinating subject, and has much to tell us about our cultural identity.
Language is more than just being able to order a coffee in Germany, or speaking to a Chinese diplomat; it is about respecting one another’s culture, identity, and history.
We cannot simply expect people to speak English, but make an effort to explore other nations through understanding at least some of their languages, in a world where borders are increasingly blurred.
By the end of the three nights, I am pleased to say the two of us we proficient in asking for most things, and having basic conversation, but there’s room to improve.