English Spoken Here And Here, And Here...

It's mid-morning at the biggest technology trade show in the world, CeBIT, in Hannover, Germany. Things are buzzing at the Cisco Systems Inc. booth. CEO John T. Chambers is in from Silicon Valley for a series of meetings and a press event, and he's running frightfully behind schedule. One agitated Cisco employee, a German, hurries over to the company snack bar. Barking English in a German accent, he orders two women, also Germans, to make "snakes" for his guests. He has these people cooling their heels in a conference room, he explains. "They must have snakes!"

The young women understand that he means "snacks," and they promptly arrange a plate of prosciutto and Brie. It doesn't appear to bother them, or even strike them as odd, that a countryman would address them in English. For how was he to know they were German? Instead of wasting time by asking, he simply cut to the chase in English.

It's no secret, of course, that English is well entrenched as the world's business language. It's also the case here at CeBIT, where Silicon Valley techno-babble rules supreme in the crowded corridors. Italians, Germans, and Swedes alike talk about "price points" and "bandwidth." And they all refer to any product, from a pager to a PC, as a "solution."

But even outside these halls, far beyond the business and tech crowds, English is catching on as a Continentwide lingua franca, threatening to reduce the French and German languages to European equivalents of Canadian French. Half of all Europeans aged 15 to 24 can now converse in English, according to the European Union. In 1987, only 1 in 3 could do so. Neologisms are rampant. Europeans have taken to calling the tunnel leading to an airplane "the finger," for instance. It's el finger, der finger, le finger, depending on where you are. Anglos would shy from the term. But with time, look for "finger" to appear in international airline safety codes.

This is all new to me. I spent most of my time in Europe, in the '70s and early '80s, in the south, where foreign languages--English, French, and German--were still the province of the elite. In a small town outside Madrid, an obnoxious boy named Pepe with a voice like a foghorn wouldn't stop bugging me to teach him some English. Finally, I taught him a barnyard epithet and told him it meant "buenos dias," and he went around screaming it at me for days. No one had a clue.

"WE WON." Back then, Europe was one tough continent for communication. The phones didn't work, everybody spoke different languages, and they had to make conversions to understand each other's money. Now, the currencies are joining into one, the same cellular phones work from Lisbon to Helsinki, and Europeans are spanning their borders by jumping onto the Web. Virtually everyone who's plugged into this Europewide economy speaks English. It's Europe's language.

This trend makes it a breeze for non-German-speaking Yankees like me at CeBIT. I can explore high-tech Europe, from massive Deutsche Telekom to a tiny Catalan Web-page designer, and they speak to me in English. Of course, these people sprinkle so many "bandwidths" and "megabytes" and "plug-and-plays" into their sentences that the jump from English to their native languages is largely a matter of switching verbs.

It's convenient, but I don't like it. Here I am in Germany, and with the exception of the Bavarian band playing nearby, CeBIT feels just like the Comdex show in Las Vegas. I was hoping for something more foreign. Later I mention this to a Chicagoan, who's manning a tiny smart-card booth in one of the outer halls. The point is lost on him. "Hey," he says. "We won the war."

To learn a language, the locals have to give you a chance to struggle a little bit, to put your foot in your mouth a few times. But these days, even in what used to be the most demanding of European cities, Paris, hesitate just a second over the pronunciation of "andouillettes," and the waiter will say: "That's a tripe sausage, you know." How can you blame him, when the signs on the "diner" across the street are talking about "breakfast" and "take-out"?

WELTSCHMERZ. This means that to speak European languages, you have to impose them on English-speaking Europeans--which is no fun at all. A week before the CeBIT show, I was lunching near the Luxembourg Gardens with some high-tech consultants. We were speaking French, and as far as I was concerned, things were going fine. At one point, I paused to conjugate a verb. Taking advantage of this opening, one of the consultants piped up that perhaps I'd prefer to speak English. My instinct was to say no. But what if he spoke perfect English? It wouldn't be fair to impose my far-from-perfect French on him, would it?

Then again, what if I rolled over and said O.K., and it turned out his English was worse than my French? To point this out would be a bit rude. And just imagine if the consultant retaliated with a scathing critique of my French. I ended up playing for time, suggesting that we stick with French until lunch came. But the whole time, I longed for the Europe I used to know, where Anglos like me could flounder until we learned.

But now, at CeBIT, I decide to lean on the lingua franca shamelessly. I speak it with everyone, even the French. Why not? Everyone else does.

Night falls over Hannover, and the CeBIT exhibitors pull their plugs. Because all the hotels are full, I take a cab to an apartment near the airport where a German family has agreed to put me up. The Frau opens the door and greets me in German. She introduces me to her husband and two grown sons, who are watching TV. More German. No one speaks English. It seems too good to be true. I sit down with them and reach back for every scrap of German I ever heard, bits of Yiddish and Hogan's Heroes, gesundheit, weltschmerz, bier. Somehow, we communicate. The result, life outside Europe's lingua franca, is like a loud and raucous game of charades.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.