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Populus research shows poor foreign language skills are leaving British holiday-makers lost in translation

This time of the year sees many UK holiday-makers jetting off for summer breaks, swapping the commute for a cocktail in the sun. But how many will be embracing local languages?

Populus research for the British Council published earlier this week, finds that many British holiday-makers will struggle with their poor foreign language skills.

Around half (56%) will even resort to physical gestures like pointing to the menu, in order to avoid pronouncing non-English words around the locals.

They’ll also resort to speaking English more slowly and loudly (42%) and even speaking English in a foreign accent (15%) in a bid to be understood abroad.

A minority (15%) admitted to being so unwilling to try pronouncing words from other languages that they would only eat in British or fast food restaurants while overseas, rather than sampling local cuisine.

A similar number said they preferred staying in self-contained resorts in a bid to avoid local culture (14%).

Parlez-vous English?

The evidence suggests that UK holiday-makers are well aware of their linguistic shortcomings.

Almost half (46%) said they were embarrassed at not being able to speak the local language while away, with 36% saying they feel guilty at asking locals to speak English.

If there is a barrier to conversing in another language, it’s fear.

Almost a third (29%) of those asked said they were too scared to try to speak another language. The findings show that:

  • 56% resorted to pointing at menus
  • 45% relied on the assumption that all locals would speak English
  • 37% can hold basic conversation in a foreign language


The majority (80%) of those asked felt it was important to try to learn some phrases. Perhaps this year will see more of us packing a foreign language dictionary alongside our sunglasses.

Consumer behaviour insight is a vital part of understanding the world around us. Populus unlocks the Critical Knowledge that brands need to understand the factors driving the opinions of the people and businesses that hold the key to success. Find out more by calling +44 [0]20 7253 9900 or emailing info@populus.co.uk.

View the full Data Tables here.



Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,068 UK adults aged 18+ from its online panel between24-25 July 2017. Figures are based on 1,760 who ever go on holiday overseas. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.

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