Excuse me, do you speak English?

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Blogger Trish Burgess writes for the Free Press

“Undskyld” I said to the elderly gentleman and his wife who were cutting their hedge in a quiet, leafy street in a suburb north of Copenhagen.

Eccuse me. One word of Danish followed up with “Do you speak English?” With that, the chap tucked his shears under his arm, smiled warmly and replied, “Yes, of course.

“We speak French, German and Dutch too. Would you like us to speak in any of those languages?”

We’ve just returned from a short break to Oslo and, just as we experienced in Denmark, the Norwegians’ English was excellent.

Of course, I realise that English is an international language and that other nations pick it up from an early age through music, TV shows and movies but it still makes me feel inadequate that my efforts dry up after “hello!”, “thank you” and “a glass of red wine, please”.

Even when I do try, it’s a disaster. On a trip to Paris some years ago, I made a decent stab at speaking French when checking in at the hotel. It all went terribly wrong when the receptionist replied in rapid French.

I recognised the word for ‘key’ but the panic in my eyes was obvious and, seeing my pain, she reverted to English before I embarrassed myself any further.

My husband doesn’t speak any French but has a smattering of German and has been pretty good at making himself understood, even speaking German to a policeman directing traffic in Le Touquet, France, when we were hopelessly lost. Our son, Rory, however, seems to have picked up my poor linguistic skills.

On holiday in Austria last year, he claimed the only thing he remembered from two terms of studying German was the word for ‘gluestick’ after a seemingly memorable lesson, ‘Things in the Classroom’.

It’s wise not to fully rely on other people speaking English when you’re abroad. Several years ago we were driving to Quebec City in Canada and were looking for somewhere to have lunch.

We found a cafe selling pizzas and hot dogs. Rory fancied a hot dog so I confidently ordered “un hot dog, s’il vous plait”.

The waitress replied “oui” then followed this up with an incomprehensible question which flummoxed me. She uttered two words with an ‘ou’ meaning ‘or’ in the middle. She was giving us some sort of choice.

I deduced it wasn’t anything to do with bread, ketchup or onions and, rather lacking in knowledge about the intricacies of hot dog cuisine, I was at a loss.

The waitress was decidedly unfriendly, as were the three chefs brandishing cleavers behind the counter.

Just when it was starting to feel like a scene from Deliverance (I swear I could hear the dueling banjos) we were rescued by an English-speaking Canadian diner who translated the question as ‘steamed or roasted?’

I asked my saviour what the usual method of hot dog preparation was in these parts. Steamed, apparently.

* You can follow Trish on 
Twitter @mumsgoneto and read her blog at www.mumsgoneto.blogspot.com