The gentleman behind the car hire desk at Geneva airport had heard enough of my halting Melbourne high school French, so he asked me gently, ‘May I speak English with you?’
Not the usual ‘Do you speak English?’ but ‘May I speak English with you?’ He gave me a line I’ve used hundreds, if not thousands, of times since. At a hotel reception desk in Ystad, before getting into a taxi in Istanbul, when lost in a maze of Estonian alleyways, I now begin my chats with strangers with ‘May I speak English with you?’
‘Do you speak English?’ carries with it the implied patronizing question ‘Are you lucky/clever/well-educated/well-travelled/tech-savvy enough to speak the world’s lingua franca? If not, maybe you’re a dumbcluck who dropped out of school.’
I’ve learned from bitter experience that when I ask someone ‘Do you speak English?’ those who aren’t confident with that tongue are immediately forced shamefacedly to admit it or brazenly to lie.
People who understand English perfectly well enough to deal with my problem sometimes answer ‘No’, just to avoid the embarrassing conversation that could ensue if they said, ‘Yes’ or ‘A little’ and my follow-up question was about Hungarian philosophers of the 18th century. (No, just point me to the toilets, please.)
‘Do you speak English?’ is a slight put-down for those who don’t, and leads the enquirer to feel awkward too.
On the other side of the coin, asking someone who does speak it well, ‘Do you speak English?’ can also be subtly insulting. ‘Sir, would I have this important job in a swish hotel, fancy restaurant, tourist bus or international trade centre if I didn’t speak English at least as well as you?’ they could answer.
‘Do you speak English?’ also encourages cocky cowboys who overrate their linguistic skills and who are trying to sell you a Persian carpet to say ‘Yes’, so as not to lose your custom.
Ask ‘Do you speak English?’ and you may discover, after directing a taxi for over an hour through the streets of Bahrain, that the ‘English-speaking’ driver has yet to master the meaning of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’. Yes, it’s a true story. No hard feelings, my friend; your English is certainly better than my Arabic, but if you’d said ‘No’ straight up it would have saved us both a lot of trouble.
I’ve found that ‘May I speak English with you?’ is a far better opening gambit in lands where I can’t manage the local dialect.
‘May I speak English with you?’ implies ‘I apologise in advance. I’m totally hopeless with Korean/Swahili/Swedish, so please have pity on me and do your best in English. Even if you find it difficult, I will be eternally grateful to you.’
If a non-native English speaker offers me ‘May I speak English with you?’ he or she is gently suggesting that the conversation may flow a little better if I can string together a few words in my native tongue and abandon my heroic attempt to show off what I learned on the plane from studying the phonetic pronunciation in the appendix of the travel guidebook.
I don’t recall how my chat with the Geneva car-hire gentleman proceeded, though I do remember that we did get a small vehicle and drive it away from Geneva Airport and into France with no major traumas.
Ever since our meeting, I’ve begun conversations with strangers in strange lands speaking strange tongues with ‘May I speak English with you?’
What do you think? Does it matter? Is ‘Do you speak English’ a slight insult?