English please …?


Exactly those two words I have been hearing a bit too often lately. In my hometown Eindhoven. In the Netherlands. When ordering a coffee on a terrace, when asking for a different size in the store or even when asking for allergy information in the supermarket. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think internationalization is an important asset and I am totally pro understanding each other’s cultural background and learning English at a primary school age. If I had children, I would have raised them bilingually: it is so easy for them to learn two languages simultaneously while they’re still young. But speaking this world language, for me, is meant to help tourists on their way, to make new friends, to be able to do business internationally and to give yourself more access to literature and research results. It makes you more self-reliant in society. But it doesn’t change the fact that I want to be helped in my own language in my own country! And I think I’m not alone in this.

I believe it’s the world upside down if I have to switch to another language to get the bill for my coffees. And as long as they at least try in Dutch, I tend to think ‘okay, you’re reaching out and you’re learning. I hope that you feel motivated in this and have a proper aim to at least be on an A2 level after a x number of months with which ordering coffee and bringing the bill should easily be done. As a highly educated person, that certainly may be expected of you.’

To cheese or not to cheese

And those are often the type of people we are dealing with in this region: highly educated students who have a side job in a shop or in a cafe/restaurant, with always an exception to prove the rule of course. But often a certain arrogance radiates (hello Zara and other Inditex groups) and people don’t even try to help in Dutch. Recently this happened to me in Jumbo. In the bakery department I saw a container with strange looking squared buns inside. It seemed like a combination of cheese buns and mini baguettes that were shaped a little too artsy. On the left a sign with ‘ham-cheese croissant’ on it, on the right a sign with ‘cheese croissant’. Neither seemed correct, although the buns seemed to have been in contact with cheese, judging from the yellow strings on top.

I don’t eat meat so I wanted to check with the lady in the bakery to make sure there was no ham in the bready surprises. “Can I ask you something? What’s in that container because the signs claim ‘ham-cheese croissant’ and ‘cheese croissant’ but it looks like neither…” The lady walks around her counter and says: “English please.” Feeling somewhat irritated in my mind but staying friendly, I repeat the question in English. The answer? “No idea, I didn’t fill those.” My brain: ‘Uh … you work here. What kind of answer is that? It may well be that you have not stocked them, but then you get someone who knows what they are?’ My response: “Ah, but I do not eat meat so I want to be sure that there is no ham in them… ” “Well, they don’t look like they have ham.” And with that she walked away. I was shocked: “People might be allergic! You should know what you’re selling and what’s in the containers.” No response.

Internationalization and identity

I paid for my other groceries and decided to go to customer service to dig into this. If you don’t ask, nothing changes. I was told there it was her first day. ‘Of course, what are the odds. But it is possible.’ “That may be, but then you still ask a colleague to help. It is the ‘I don’t care’ attitude that annoys me. As if it is all normal. I am in my own country and want to be helped in my own language!” The lady said I had a valid point there. “I will definitely discuss this with the manager.” Great. And is the girl in question encouraged to learn the Dutch language? What does Jumbo do about this? “No idea.” “Well, let me give you a tip in the context of being a responsible employer here, or call it CSR, because you also take some social responsibility by doing so: make sure that this subject is explicitly named and encouraged. That may sound exaggerating, but if Eindhoven continues to internationalize at this pace, we must guard against loss of identity and language is a very important part of that. Everyone should feel at home here. To top it off with a good saying: let’s meet each other halfway. Regardless of how much we need international talent.



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