Hello, yes, goodbye


Another day, another survey, or several.  Today on Today I learnt that the average Lithuanian drinks 750 pints of beer a year, while engaged couples – in the UK that is, not Lithuania – are more likely to ask for an expresso machine than a fondue set.  I hope the buyers in Peter Jones (Brides Book department) were listening.

The survey business is increasingly crowded and competitive, as companies that are not inherently newsworthy work out that conducting or concocting a survey is a cheaper way to generate exposure than sponsoring sport.

Last year a car rental company had a great success with a ‘survey’ revealing that one in 10 couples breaks up on holiday and 40% argue at least once a day, for all the usual comedy sitcom reasons.  In response to this the car hire firm launched a ‘couples counselling hotline’ which no doubt did wonders for its database.  ‘And if you want to escape her clutches, rent a Datsun for only £9 a day (terms and conditions apply).’

It worked a treat: the Daily Mail commissioned a big feature with staged pictures of couples throwing wine at each other in an ‘allo ‘allo kind of way, during a bickering session sparked off by her backseat driving (15%), his refusal to ask for directions (21%), or their spending too much time together (26%).   Great fun, great PR.  Message? Take separate holidays: two cars rented, instead of one.

This year the same company’s annual ‘survey’ informs us that ‘according to new research’ the average UK adult can ‘rattle off’ up to 15 words of French, while the ‘average holidaymaker’ knows eight Spanish words.  Hasta la vista hombre being four of them, no doubt.  Do we conclude that an almost twice as well educated class of traveller goes to France?   Tim Harford on More or Less might have something to say about the methodology of this.

Who cares?  ‘27% of Brits make absolutely no effort to learn a language ahead of their holidays,’ says the car hire firm, suggesting that an impressive 73% do.  ‘Yes’ and ‘goodbye’ are the most common words Brits know how to say in a foreign language, followed by ‘thanks’, ‘no’ and ‘good morning’.  ‘Please’ comes in a shameful seventh place, and ‘sorry’ nowhere at all.   We Brits are just as boorish on holiday as at home.

While more than three out of ten of us can ask for a beer – presumably slightly more than that in Germany, where the word for beer is beer – only three in ten can ask where the bathroom is.  Leaving a small minority of beer drinkers with no alternative but to cross their legs and hang on.

In conclusion, “this research highlights that Brits don’t make huge amounts of effort when it comes to learning languages when planning a holiday abroad.”  Pass the smelling salts.

On the strength of this conclusion, the car hire company has produced ‘handy language guides that are available online and include top foreign phrases that you can learn while traveling or before you pick up your car.’

I haven’t clicked the link to the handy online language guides because I’m worried about cookies and all the infuriating ads that would invade my screen if I did.  But I have an idea what some of the handy phrases might be.

I’ve been standing in this queue for an hour and a half – would you like me to fill in a customer satisfaction survey?    

I booked a Golf, not a Nissan Micra. 

2000 euros excess?  You must be joking.

We prepaid for a baby seat: where the hell is it?      

Daylight robbery.    

That scratch was there before.  

The petrol gauge lies.  The tank definitely wasn’t full when we picked the car up.  

Bad luck, the survey didn’t make it on to the Today programme, bumped by the Lithuanian beer and wedding list survey stories.  But maybe it’ll get on at the weekend, when the press thinks holidays.

Is it really a survey?  It doesn’t sound like one to me: more likely, two bright young things in the agency flying a few kites in a desperate bid to get the client’s name in the press.  I don’t think they were entirely confident that their not terribly revealing survey of language skills would cut it, and that may be why they have tacked on some extra titbits – ‘lost in translation gems,’ in their estimation.

‘Over a quarter of Brits have a funny story to tell about a friend or family member trying to make themselves understood on holiday – with 17 percent claiming they still laugh about it.’  About a third of those with a funny story having worked out that their funny holiday story isn’t funny enough to raise a laugh.   A weary smile, at best.


  • A gentleman got a surprise in France when he asked for jam to go with his croissant and got a condom.


Sorry, the préservatif gag is old and tired and lacks surprise value or credibility.  The confusion is more plausible the other way around, but I doubt even Fawlty Towers could carry it off.


  • One man asked for directions and kept being told the price of a chicken.

Is this something to do with je vous prie/prix and où est/poulet, or was he asking for directions to the Monoprix?  We really need more information to make sense of this one.  What country was he in?


  • A holidaymaker thought he was asking a waiter where the toilet was, but was actually repeatedly asking where the man’s wife was.


Got it – ladies/femmes/wife.  But why was he asking for the ladies?  Is he some kind of pervert, or hoping for gender reassignment?


  • Another asked for egg on his pancake and got a raw egg.


Is there a translation issue here?  He asked for an egg and got one.  Un oeuf said.


  • One respondent asked for a lemonade and ended up buying a newspaper.


Limonade – Le Monde.   But … why would he buy it?  Le Monde is hardly likely to appeal to the shaky linguist.  And why ask for a drink in a paper shop?


  • Another respondent regularly got the French words for rabbit and bread around the wrong way.


Le pain/lapin, easily done.  My advice to respondent is to think of the baguette as a large phallus (= masculine).  It may not be PC but if it works, respondent’s lunch may be more satisfactory.  Lawyers and avocados can be quite confusing too, and mayors and mothers.  And remember, the policewoman and the lady mayor are masculine.


  • One respondent ended up with a slap around the face. To this day he doesn’t know what he said!


Maybe he was just talking to a slapper.


Comments are closed.