It is often said that Western Europeans speak English. From traveling all through Europe I know that this is not entirely true. Some regions of Europe have a 90% English speaking prevalancy rate, while others it is generally an unintelligible tongue. The divide, it seems, lies with the Romance languages.
In Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the rest of the Western European non-Romance language speaking regions, English seems to be understood and spoken nearly as well as the people’s first tongue. In Iceland, I have never experienced English spoken so well and so widely by a non-native speaking country. The Dutch are said to have nearly as high a rate of English speaking prevalancy than the United States of America, and I, for one, have never met a Dutch person who did not speak English almost as well as my countrymen.
But move south of Western Europe a little, and something happens: English becomes a drastically less useful language for travel. You just crossed over the Romance language barrier and into Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy, where English is spoken at a rate that does not seem to be much higher than in China, Latin America, or Southeast Asia.
If you don’t believe me, try to hitchhike across France using only English,You will not have many conversations; try tramping through Spain without speaking Spanish, and see how much people understand your words; go to Portugal without a knowledge of Portuguese and watch how most of the population becomes conversationally unavailable. Often, the people in Romance speaking Europe only know their country’s tongue, perhaps a local dialect, and maybe French.
Traveling through Europe and working at hostels around the world that are popular with Europeans has given me a deeper view of their foreign language attributes. The northern Europeans can often spout off in five or six languages, while the Romance speakers hardly know more than their birth tongue. If you think that Spanish and Italian are so similar as to be mutually intelligible, I tell you that this is completely incorrect: Spaniards and Italians don’t even understand each other. It is also not a given that people from both of these countries can communicate in French, and only those who put in a high amount of self-directed effort or have lived abroad speak English well.
People often say that French people really understand English but refuse to speak it out of spite, but from watching hundreds of French travelers over the years struggle with English abroad as well as friends in France trying in vain to communicate with me, I know that this is not true: English is simply not widely spoken there outside of the metropolitan areas. I am at a campsite now in Reykjavik, and there are bins in the kitchen for the departing guests to leave the food that they did not finish for other campers to consume. The sign notifying people of this is only written in English: “Take food, leave food!” The French travelers seem bewildered as to why everyone is helping themselves to their grub. They can’t read the sign.
World languages are those that are spoken across wide spans of geography and, in many countries, through many different regions of the world. English, Spanish, and French are currently the only true world languages. Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language in the world, but it is highly dialectical, and is often mutually unintelligible between speakers from different regions. The same goes for Arabic. Russia was once a world language, but it has gone out of style with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are advantages and disadvantages to learning a world language as a native tongue. The advantages are obvious: you can go to many parts of the world and speak the language you are most comfortable with. The disadvantage is that there is less of a drive to learn other languages. What is the impetus of putting in the extreme amounts of time and effort to learn another tongue if you rarely need to use it?
There is a great divide in foreign language skills in Western Europe between the Romance language speakers and those whose native tongues are less widely spoken. For the Anglo speaking traveler, the northern reaches of this region can be navigated with linguistic ease, while the Mediterranean countries often demand that you can speak a local tongue to have in depth conversations with the bulk of the population.