The relentless march of anti-immigration sentiment in the UK seems to have thrown some people completely off the rails. There have been more than a few press reports of what appears to be language discrimination at Lidl UK 'value' supermarkets.
But what's new? Back in 1992 I was working for the Russian Service of the BBC when, following the demise of the USSR, the management decided to set up a Ukrainian-language service to reflect new geopolitical realities. The newly hired staff were told to only speak English when on the job. As it happens, most of the employees in the Ukrainian Service were native Russian speakers from Kiev and East Ukraine, so we in the Russian Service assumed that it was OK for us to communicate with them in the language of our common heritage.
So it came as a bit of a shock to us when they pointedly responded in English whenever we addressed them in Russian. We were told rather haughtily by our British managers that it was only fair and reasonable for the Ukrainian staff to communicate with us — and everyone else in the BBC — in the working language of the place. You can imagine my astonishment when in the Bush House basement restaurant I overheard our Ukrainian friends chatting happily… in Russian!
These days, it appears, speaking your mother tongue can get you in trouble whether you are in Kiev or Kirkcaldy. The UK supermarket chain insist their language policy is only fair and reasonable. Sounds familiar. But — what about the really indigenous language of Kirkcaldy, Scottish Gaelic? Does this policy mean that these supermarkets are off limits to the locals?
Of course, when it comes to people coming to work in another country it is fair and reasonable to expect that they should be able — and encouraged — to learn the language of the place. But in the EU whose basic tenet is free movement of people, goods and services it is not always possible.
Imagine Spanish tapistas insisting on speaking Spanish to visiting English or Scottish tourists. Or what if a German customer stumbles into a British Lidl? Would they be advised to go back to Deutschland for their daily shop? Makes me wonder if Lidl UK managers ever go on holidays abroad and what language they use in Poland, what with Warsaw or Krakow being a magnet for British budget tourists?
So how does the affordable supermarket chain propose to cater to customers whose English is less than perfect? Will they check their English at the door, put interpreters at the tills, or turn such customers away? They may be surprised how much custom they would lose, and not just from Polish-speaking shoppers. Having heard the story I made a point of listening in on conversations between staff and customers at my local Lidl. Many were switching between English and Bengali. I had to wonder if the employees there would also face the sack — or does this policy only apply to Polish?
Apparently, Lidl employees in Kirkcaldy have questioned their orders, pointing out that many of their customers only speak Polish and do not understand English. They are reported to be preparing a petition to the Lidl HQ in Germany. I imagine, the chaps at HQ may find themselves at a loss as to how to respond to the scandal.
You see, a lot of shop assistants in Germany are of Turkish descent. When my family travelled to Berlin for a long weekend some time ago, I took with me a German phrasebook as I always find it proper to be able to say at least a few words to the locals in their own language. But the phrasebook stayed in my pocket: our son had no trouble communicating with local waiters and shop assistants — without knowing a word of German. The reason is he has lived in Istanbul and speaks Turkish.
Actually Turkic dialects can be heard at every Moscow supermarket as most assistants, especially those at the tills hail from the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia. Sometimes their Russian is fairly basic, yet I have never noticed any displeasure or disapproval on the part of Russian shoppers who patiently wait while the cashiers sort out pricing issues among themselves in their own tongue. Of course, the Western press would like us to believe that Russians are invariably xenophobic. Well, not on this evidence. While the language policies of some UK employers certainly raise awkward questions.