Before we start, I’d like to apologize to all the French and Spanish speaking people of the world. For I have done your accents a cruel and shameful disservice. But it was all in the name of Entente Cordiale.

More of that later…

A Saturday morning in July. On every street corner in town you can hear the myriad tongues of western Europe, eastern Europe, the Far East, Saint Helens. It’s like the scoring bit of the Eurovision, only slightly less humbling. And it’s heartening proof that Liverpool is a city with international appeal.

But just how welcoming are we to foreign visitors? Because, for all our world class attractions, if our service and welcome aren’t equally world class – if competing cities go the extra mile to say ‘Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome’ we really shouldn’t be calling ourselves an international city at all. Not every visitor is keen to snap up a ‘Learn to Speak Scouse’ book from Waterstones.

Which is why, last weekend, I spent a couple of hours on the phone – with an accent oscillating wildly between René Artois from Allo Allo and Manuel from that hotel in Torquay. And I did it to see whether, five years after our European Capital of Culture party, we’re any more European – and welcoming – than we were. And the results, well, they speak for themselves.

The largest percentage of Liverpool’s visitors come from Western Europe – where French is the most-spoken first or second language. Travellers from Eastern Europe, too, are more likely to speak French (those all important Ryanair destinations) as a second language than English.

Spanish, too, is a widely spoken language – especially with visitors from Europe and Latin America. So you’d figure any city with ambitions to be at the top tourist table would place great value on ensuring visitors are offered a welcome, at initial point of contact, in their language, should their English be as rusty as our Latvian.

And that’s not just our take on it, it’s a widely accepted selbstgänger (German for ‘no-brainer’) in the tourism industry.

So what would happen if a tour guide from France, or Spain, phoned our leading hotels and visitor attractions, offering a booking for a group of tourists eager to spend money in our city but who spoke little or no English. What sort of welcome would they receive?

SevenStreets (starting off René, ending Manuel): Hello, Parlez-vous français? Hablas español? Do you speak French or Spanish? I would like to make a booking of the party of French and Spanish speakers?

Hard Day’s Night: No we don’t, thank you, goodbye. (puts phone down before we can reply)

Hotel Indigo: No, not here. Sorry (is heard asking around ‘Does anyone here speak French or Spanish?’ – muffled grunting noises). No, sorry. No-one.

Hope Street Hotel (Liverpool Tourism Awards’ hotel of the year last year): No, sorry. Not at weekends anyway.

Radisson: No we don’t speak French at reception. What’s that? Spanish? Oh no…

Adelphi: Yes, we have a French speaker, but they’re busy at the moment. Can you call back in a bit? (We do. They do.)

Crowne Plaza: (abrupt and curt) No sir, we only speak English here. (receiver replaced)

Hilton: (sounding offended that we’d asked) No, we’re an English speaking hotel.

Staybridge Suites (another Tourism award winner): No mate, no one here speaks French. (Replaces receiver before we can ask about Spanish).

World Museum Liverpool: (Friendly) No unfortunately we don’t. This comes up a lot, we should have really. (When asked if they have French or Spanish audio guides, or any way for tourists to access information about the ‘world’ galleries) No, sorry, we only have English guides. We have some printed information in Spanish, but not French… (About half of the 225,000 overseas visitors who come to Liverpool visit National Museums Liverpool venues…)

Beatles Story (Attraction of the year): Yes we do, wait there, we’ll just get her… (rustling, phone is handed over)… Bonjour? (oh bugger. SevenStreets doesn’t speak French. Oh, the irony…We brush up our accent and ask about French audio guides)... Yes, the museum has French and Spanish audio guides…(We love them. Oui, Oui, Oui.)

Tourist information Office: Not really, sorry. Maybe a little. (We ask about foreign language guides to the city) Sorry, we stopped printing our foreign language leaflets about a year ago. But I can give you the name of a French speaking, and Spanish speaking guide….(Overall, we were impressed…)

Tate Gallery: No, sorry. Only English here.(We ask about French or Spanish audio guides to the Monet/Tate exhibition. What with Monet being, y’know, French an’ all)… No, as I said, only English. Sorry, bye.

Liverpool ONE Information Office (Tourism award winner): We have Spanish and German speakers, but can I speak to you in English? Your English sounds very good… (Bugger it. Rumbled. Cranks up ridiculous accent. Insists, almost angrily, for a French guide) Why don’t you give us your email, and I’m sure we can sort one out for you, no problem. (Go to the top of the class, Liverpool ONE).

Liverpool Cathedral: No we can’t offer a full guide, but we can happily arrange for someone to welcome visitors in French and Spanish, and we have full French and Spanish audio guides…(bless them)

Yeah, I know. This isn’t scientific. But it is, I think, telling. Some of our tourist attractions really are making the effort and offering a service befitting a top flight tourist destination – and for that we should be proud. Others, sadly, need a good talking to.

Our hotels – save for the venerable Adelphi (and who’d have thought that?!) are letting the side down, which is a real shame: as these are so often the first point of contact for our visitors. And, while some of us may think the world is contained within our boundaries, not everyone speaks Sefton and, by and large, the reception staff we spoke to seemed at best mildly put out to listen to a bumbling French tour guide.

“Though a lot of visitors to the UK speak English, there is a growing awareness in Britain that we could do more to welcome tourists if staff across the leisure and hospitality industry had better language skills,” says Dan Hartman from the British Council. “Increasingly, top city destinations are ensuring that key personnel have at least enough language to offer a welcome to tourists in French, Spanish or whatever languages their visitor surveys show are most likely to be spoken by guests.”

“Increasingly, it’s considered rude and sometimes counter-productive of us to assume that everyone understands English when travelling abroad,” he adds.

Liverpool City Region’s Visitor Economy is a thriving industry which generates visitor spend of £3billion a year and is estimated to support 42,300 jobs. Figures show that in 2010, an estimated 54.5 million visitor trips were made to Liverpool City Region – with 2,000,000 overnight stays in Liverpool alone.

But we’re a city competing in a global market. And, for all the back-slapping awards fests, we’re in no position to rest on our laurels.

We’re not saying that these fine places don’t offer a warm welcome – they most definitely do – but, as many of our city’s tourist institutions have just received their Council grants, and set about refurbing, we’d suggest they save a few quid for a crash course in a couple of European languages for their front of house staff.

Our greatest attraction has never been our buildings but our intangible cultural assets – and first impressions go a long, long way.

24 Responses to “Mind Your Language”

  1. Barbara McGrouther

    2008 Capital of Cuture year, volunteers were offered a free crash course of six weeks in French at the ’08 information Place. It was very good and helpful for basic welcome and directions. Volunteers were chosen this year for certain roles for the ‘Giant’ Event for their ability to speak French, this was very helpful. Liverpool one do have some excellent German speakers as I witnessed this weekend when the German Cruise Ship ‘Aida Cara’ docked in Liverpool they were on hand to welcome and help the visitors.

  2. Having worked at one of these museums and at a popular hot spot, (and being bilingual), most often there is indeed staff that speaks other languages but they have the lowest ranking jobs and are not the first point of contact for visitors.

  3. Rachel

    Can’t believe some of them just put the phone down on you – however I fear for the comedy value of your accent. 😉 Defiantly something Liverpool needs to start thinking about more if we are going to continue to grow our Tourism sector.

  4. I was in one of those hotels, mentioning no names, but a well respected one, and there was an elderly Italian couple at the reception, and they tried to speak in German and even a little English, but the girl on reception was so rude it was embarrassing. In the end, I ended up helping them out with my GCSE German. I felt quite ashamed of my city I have to say. The hotel should always have someone on hand who can speak another major language, it’s shocking they don’t.

  5. The outcome of this research is rather sad, and in business terms, quite worrying. As a language speaker (German and Spanish), I would suggest that there is a little point in sending staff on a crash course to learn a second language if what you want is a workforce made up of people who can hold a conversation with visitors in their own language. This can only be achieved by employing staff with a second language.

    It would be great for all front line staff, at the very least, to be able to greet overseas visitors in their own language and surely this can be achieved simply by effort on the part of hotels, attractions, restaurants and shops to develop such skills in their current staff.

  6. Adelia

    My mum and dad are Portuguese and speak Spanish, and when they came to visit over Easter they stayed at the Hilton and found it very hard to be understood – just not that many older people speak English very good, unless they are from the business world. On the continent anyone working in the leisure industry (as I am) has to have a second language, so visitors come here expecting the same levels of service. They went to Edinburgh after Liverpool and had no problem in their hotel, as the concierge spoke perfect Spanish with a broad scots accent!

  7. This article once again highlights the problem that not just Liverpool but most of the UK has in welcoming overseas visitors in their own language. When languages are spoken it is often by default rather than intent.
    For 2008 some foreign language speakers wore flag badges of the country of the language they spoke – a wonderful concept but seems to have vanished after 08!!!.
    I deliver a Liverpool knowledge programme to Tourism front of house staff in Liverpool City Region and am constantly amazed that very few speak languages – but we probably have to go back to making languages compulsory at five years of age and throughout school and uni, instead of this attitude of everyone speaks English so why bother.
    When I used to lecture in Travel and Tourism learning Spanish was a mandatory module – to my dismay this is very rarely the case now.
    Lets have a concerted effort to firstly actively recruit staff with languages and then determine which staff if any have language skills and badge them accordingly…its a start

  8. Nous sommes désolé (we are sorry!).
    Interesting article. And we are glad the Seven Streets mystery shopper found World Museum’s visitor assistant friendly.
    Unfortunately National Museums Liverpool doesn’t have audio guides for non English speaking visitors. We’d love to have these, but as you can appreciate there is a cost to producing such guides.
    What we do have, in all our venues, is printed guides in several different languages. On our website we also have general summaries with visitor information in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Chinese and Japanese.
    It would have been great if our visitor assistant could had explained this to your caller or directed them to our website.

  9. Spencer

    Hatters Hostel on Mount Pleasant just recently lost their French speaker, myself, but they retain a very large Spanish contingent as well as a Hungarian speaker, a Czech one and a Bulgarian (though the last two are night staff). In the past there was also a large German presence in the staff not so much anymore. I found myself speaking in my native at least once a shift if not far more, it was quite fun to sense the tone and see whether the guest would rather continue in English (something I find almost annoying about the Germans when I attempt to speak their language and they instantly respond in English) or fall back on French.

    Admittedly this isn’t the same level of hotel as was interviewed, which makes it worse really. It is frankly embarrassing that these more upmarket establishments lack any foreign speakers in a town that is getting year on year more and more foreign tourism (and even immigration). Likewise it’s always pained me that our museums have no translations or alternative descriptions as even the most bizarre backwater museums in Eastern Europe that I’ve visited have at least English/German/Russian.

    Hopefully the article will help highlight this and start shaming the companies a bit, I accept that it can be expensive in part (especially for our free museums less so for the hotels) but with the hopes and expectations of this city in the future it’s a minimum.

  10. This is shameful, but not surprising. When half the people in Liverpool can’t even speak English properly what chance is there for them to speak another language? My nephew has just got a 2:1 at Edge Hill University in English and he can’t spell and has no concept of grammar, only how to deconstruct speeches by President Obama. Sad times.

  11. 1) Compulsory language for all from the moment they start primary school – anyone can learn languages, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to speak at all.

    2) Choose one singular language to teach (ie Spanish) across the city from the early age, so it creates a critical mass of bi-lingualism (it would be much easier for people to pick up other languages later if they wished)

    3) Abandon aiming for GCSE marks when teaching it and use something like Rosetta Stone, which is excellent and teaches you to actually USE it. Maybe a Liverpool Certificate of Language Education instead!

    Within 16 years, if our new found mayor were prepared to bankroll (perhaps with business assistance), there is no reason why Liverpool couldn’t leapfrog the rest of the UK and become the ‘go-to’ place to visit and do business.

  12. A very good report, however, I really don’t think this is a huge problem. I assure you English is widely spoken in Europe and outside it and people who visit are usually well prepared to speak English, in fact they cherish the opportunity to practise their English language skills.

    This fragment truly baffled me:
    “The largest percentage of Liverpool’s visitors come from Western Europe – where French is the most-spoken first or second language. Travellers from Eastern Europe, too, are more likely to speak French (those all important Ryanair destinations) as a second language than English.”

    I haven’t got any official statistics, but as a Polish citizen, I know a few hundred eastern Europeans who speak English as their second language, several who know German, and one person who speaks French. French and Spanish are nowhere near as popular as English and German as second languages in Europe.

    It’s another aspect of this that made me think: I was an advanced English speaker when I first arrived in Liverpool, and still, I could not understand a word. Yes, the Scouse accent. I think as long as people are weary of it and do their best to be understood by foreigners, that’s fine.

    And putting the phone down on somebody is so rude, I would never expect this from an English person. I’m very surprised at that. I think this country does have an amazing customer service.

  13. Hi Ola – cheers for your response. The fact about French being the second most spoken language in the old eastern european/eastern bloc countries surprised me. I got it from Berlitz’ languages information press release. And, yes, I find the Scouse accent hard myself sometimes, and I’m from here!

  14. I’m a German speaker but no job in the city pays well enough to utilise my language skills. If some of these hotels, attractions etc were to up their salaries, they would definitely attract more multilingual staff.

  15. Helena

    Considering Liverpool has two language schools full of students who would be willing and able to either record transcripts for audio tours or work part time in our hotels and visitor attractions, I don’t really think there is any excuse for us not having these neccesary functions. I doubt it would cost all that much either. Maybe the hotels and visitor attractions should start forging permenant links with these schools?

    Audio tours would be a one time outlay of funds then its done and you can use the recording for years (or at least until the end of the exhibit). Also I’ve been in several hotels abroad that have informaiton and check in points that you can change the language on, they are really easy to use and great when your not to sure of yourself linguistically.

  16. Gerry Proctor

    Excellent article as usual and a really important piece of research. Who should be taking this forward? Is there anyone to whom we could address our concerns about the thriving hotel sector in the city and the poor level of welcome to international visitors? Estoy completemente de acuerdo!

  17. Katy Moussaada

    Excellent article …have to say – we have to start with our Education system – primary school with mandatory language lessons – continuing into secondary – interestingly very few FE courses or Tourism Degrees have languages as mandatory – what message does that give …so lots of points where education is not helping get us over this concept of ‘everyone speaks English’

    Businesses within tourism also have to start actively recruiting for Language speakers, rather than they are recruited by default i.e. they are spanish french etc

    Finally given we were European Capital of Culture – as you so rightly point out we are not a European focused at all for our visitors…Remember 2014 is Liverpool International Festival of Business – lets hope we are slightly more able to converse with these visitors in their own language!!!!

  18. Barbara

    Brilliant feature, and not much of a surprise sadly. As a classroom assistant we had a group of Portuguese students here last month, and many didn’t speak English well, but obviously spoke Spanish and some FRench. Try getting anyone in the museums to engage with them was like trying to communicate with the dead. I felt very embarrased for our so called tourist friendly city

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