Magazine article The Spectator

Language Barriers

Magazine article The Spectator

Language Barriers

Article excerpt

There was an unfortunate incident the other morning during breakfast at a smart hotel in central London. A middle-aged man asked a waitress for some English mustard to accompany his bacon and sausages.

'What you meaning?' she said in a barely audible voice.

'May I have some English mustard, please?' said the man.

'Mustor-cheese? What you meaning?'

With which the man erupted, throwing down his knife and fork, spilling his coffee and shouting loudly: 'Look, for f***'s sake I want some English mustard. It can't be too much to ask. E-n-g-l-i-s-h m-u-s-t-a-r-d. Can't you understand a word I am saying? Some English mustard!'

'Sorry, no understandy.' And off she went.

Now, I don't know if this touches in any way on the immigration issue that politicians tried to get so exercised about during the election, but I do know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make oneself understood in Britain in general and in hotels and restaurants in particular. More to the point, 'service', in the strict meaning of the word, is something this country has almost forgotten how to deliver. It has become a luxury.

As it happens, the middle-aged man at breakfast that morning was me. I was meeting my brother to discuss a number of family matters before he went into hospital but we ended up talking mainly about the dramatic decline in service in almost every aspect of modern life. We concluded that it doesn't much matter whether you are in a Pizza Hut or a flash five-star restaurant. The service is likely to be just as slapdash, just as incoherent, just as infuriating. We've lost our class and now we've lost our touch.

It's all very well for Visit Britain to claim that this is the ultimate destination for discerning travellers, but it won't be long before they go elsewhere. After all, people don't come to Britain because it's cheap or clean or sunny. Presumably, some come because they still imagine we know how to do things, that we are a sophisticated country, that we are reasonably competent. When, clearly, we are not.

The language barrier is a factor. Certainly there is no need for tourists to pack a phrase book, since most of the people they will meet - waiters, barmen, hotel receptionists, prostitutes, TV reporters - will speak worse English than they do. During lunch at fashionable Kensington Place, west London last week with Leanda de Lisle (once of this parish), we were asked by a pleasing-looking waitress from a hot country if we wanted water. Yes, please.

'Still or sparkling?' she said.

'Could we have a jug of tap water with ice and lemon, please?' I said, and might just as well have asked for her hand in marriage. The puzzlement on her face was such that we felt sorry to have ruined her afternoon. But we certainly didn't feel sorry for Rowley Leigh, who is in charge at Kensington Place. He should never have hired her - not at least until she had gained a reasonable command of English.

But even when hotel and restaurant staff can speak the language, things don't necessarily work any better. Staying a night at a hotel in Tetbury last month, I asked for directions to the M4. 'What is that?' asked the South African receptionist. When I told her that it was a motorway she pointed in the wrong direction and said, 'I think it's over there. …

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