THE BLOG

Please 'Elp Me, I Am Briteesh...

14/08/2013 09:21 BST | Updated 13/10/2013 10:12 BST

Steve McClaren and Joey Barton both have reasons to be cheerful today.

Having both been ridiculed for putting on a fake foreign accent to address reporters in the Netherlands and France respectively, they can take some comfort from knowing that they are not alone. Far from it, in fact.

As millions of UK holidaymakers head for sunnier climes, the British Council has investigated the extent to which our language and cultural skills let us down abroad. And, like fear of jellyfish, we're wary of sticking our toe in the cultural waters.

More than three quarters of Brits surveyed told pollsters Populus that they consider themselves unable to speak any foreign language to a good standard. Almost half of us say our lack of language skills has caused us embarrassment while on holiday. And - here's the good news for Messrs McClaren and Barton - one in six of us admits to having spoken 'Engleesh' in a fake foreign accent in an attempt to make ourselves better understood.

Lucky the sunburn is hiding the red faces. But there are some more practical drawbacks. More than half of us admit to ordering food by pointing at a menu to avoid trying to pronounce foreign words. Nearly one in five of us admit to having ordered something from a menu we didn't understand - and have absolutely no idea what we ended up eating.

Even worse, almost a quarter of us say we've paid 'over the odds' for something on holiday as a result of not being able to speak the lingo.

The UK's lack of foreign language skills has become almost a cliché. But that doesn't make it a laughing matter. If we don't have the skills to get by for a few days in the sun, what hope do we have when it comes to the serious business of international trade?

I remember years ago working for a big British company and trying to strike a partnership with an Italian company, in Russia, through two separate interpreters. Absolutely hopeless. He was smiling while I was frowning, I was nodding while he was shaking his head and we each left none the wiser, as to what the other was up for or up to.

Yes, English is the international business language, but there's a hell of a lot of business going on around the world - in emerging economies especially - where English isn't enough.

And coming back to our research, even if you can muddle through with English, it helps to be able to play the culture card.

Unfortunately, we'd rather be down the 'Dick Turpin' than 'Chez Richard'. One in five of us admits to having avoided the local cuisine of our holiday hosts - opting instead for British restaurants or familiar fast food joints. One in six has dodged the local culture entirely, by keeping to familiar surroundings such as resorts.

Now let's cut ourselves some slack here - we're talking holidays and we're all entitled to put our feet up and enjoy some comforts of home. But... here's the worst stat from our research: eight per cent of us own up to actively having caused offence on holiday because we didn't understand the local culture. Zut alors.

Setting aside these blemishes, the better news is that the UK has good reputation on the world stage. We are one of the best-regarded countries in the world and people generally trust and welcome us. This is thanks in no small part to the many British people who have travelled the world sharing English, our world-renowned education system and the UK's open, diverse, creative culture. As I always say, to know us is to love us.

British people are among the world's best travellers; it's our history and in all of our genes. But we'd all get more from our travels - whether on business or on holiday - if we tried a few words of the language and tasted a bit more of the local culture.

The world's our oyster - if we can master the menu.