The BBC’s 1990s TV news satire The Day Today is still a favourite among Westminster insiders. In one celebrated sketch, political correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan is humiliated for implausibly claiming to have spoken to the German finance minister in German. It would not work in reverse. A German audience would – rightly – assume that any German journalist would speak excellent English and probably another language or two.
In February, the latest report bemoaning the decline – from a low base – of language learning in Britain hit the headlines. BBC Radio 4 ran a jokey item highlighting that at least some senior journalists are capable of communicating, albeit often haltingly, in a language other than English. Basic conversational ability was presented implicitly as remarkable. In most European Union countries, it would be a bare minimum for any white-collar job. In Brussels, most shop workers are trilingual.