Originally Published August 11th, 2021
In Europe, nearly everyone under 40 speaks English with varying degrees of fluency. Perhaps an oversimplification would be to say the average English ability increases the further north you are in Europe. There are exceptions to this rule of course but, in general, it holds.
In countries like the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, you can have a fluent conversation in English with nearly anyone you meet, regardless of age. While there are many reasons for this, one of them always strikes me as particularly interesting. In some countries, English language television programs are broadcast with the original audio but subtitled in the native language. I’m not sure if this is a cultural choice or merely a budgetary decision. Re-recording and matching dialog audio into another language is expensive. Regardless of the reason, it results in a meaningful percentage of the population listening to native English speakers and understanding the meaning of the conversation for potentially hours every day.
If you have people from several different countries at a meeting or convention or simply grabbing a coffee, the conversation will default to English. As nearly everyone learns it as a second language growing up, now the common denominator in Europe.
Keep in mind though that it is mostly British English that is being taught. So no one is “swinging down to the coffee shop to grab a donut” but rather “popping over to the cafe for a spot of pastry.” And if someone asks you where the nearest “hole in the wall” is, they’re not looking for a dive bar. They’re looking for an ATM.
Spelling is also a minefield when comparing American vs British English. It’s almost as bad as hitting your tyre on the kerb while manoeuvring your car at the theatre near the centre of town and travelling back home to analyse your defence and dialogue for the insurance agent.
While in Germany I moonlighted a bit correcting English papers for other students. Every time I loaded a document up, my Word window filled with an army of red squiggled words.
As a native English speaker, you will also often be asked questions about the language itself. I must warn you, even though you want to be helpful, it’s perhaps preferable to flee from any and all requests. If you attempt to give advice, you may quickly lose confidence in your language abilities. People who have studied English as a foreign language have learned the rules behind that language. A native speaker’s knowledge of the rules of their own language usually pales in comparison. You will know something is wrong or right but cannot explain why.
My favorite example of this is adjective word order in English. These are the rules that describe why “the big red car” sounds fine and “the red big car” sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Turns out there is a set order to how adjectives must be placed in English sentences. That order is opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. You know this by instinct but would never be able to explain it.
Why are all of these countries teaching their students from a very early age? English is the language of business all over the world. If you would like to participate in that world, you need to speak English. This is an ability that many native speakers, unfortunately, do not fully appreciate. If you are a native English speaker, you have already cleared a huge hurdle to be able to study or work abroad. If you’re interested in doing either of those, don’t count yourself out. You’re much more prepared than you think.