Fred Astaire was asked once about Judy Garland’s abilities as a dancer. The great man was, as always, gracious. Unlike his sister Adele and the legendary Ginger Rogers, who in performance seemed almost grafted to him, the star of the Wizard of Oz was, he said, a “hoofer”.

What he meant by this was that she knew the steps, worked hard and did her best to keep up. It was intended as a compliment.

I am a linguistic hoofer. Having lived in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, I have in my time had to get by in three foreign languages. At my best I was quite good, but never remotely fluent. Today, living in rural Brittany, but spending at least three months of each year in Paris, I have upped my game a little and just about get by in grown-up French. But it’s a struggle. 

The French, by contrast, have come on in leaps and bounds. Thirty years ago, no more than one in ten citizens ofl’Hexagone could speak more than a few words of English. Today, they’re all at it. It’s not just waiters. Politicians and academics have added the language of Shakespeare to that of Moliere.

Francois Fillon speaks excellent English, as does Emmanuel Macron, the ambitious young 39-year-old centrist – the Tony Blair to Fillon’s Margaret Thatcher. One of François Hollande’s failings as President was that he couldn’t understand what was going on at EU summits and dinners without the benefit of his interpreter. LIke Thereas May at that recent Brussels summit, he looked awkward and out of his depth.

That is unlikely to happen again. A couple of weeks ago, a young woman turned up on our front doorstep in Brittany fund-raising for the local fire brigade. She addressed me in English, as did the representative of EDF who came to assess my request for a power upgrade that would enable us to heat the house and boil a kettle at the same time.

In Paris winebars, my wife and I start chatting in French to strangers we meet about this and that. The moment we make a linguistic stumble, they switch to English, delighted to show off their skill, pleased to demonstrate their superiority. 

It is the same in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain, and for all I know in Italy. In the Dutch-speaking and Scandinavian countries, it has always been this way. English is now the world’s lingua franca, and it puts the mere English at a distinct disadvantage.

When everyone in a roomful of foreigners switches to your language, you feel immediately gratified but also a little ashamed. It is as if a child has entered the room and the adults are doing their best to be helpful and welcoming. The Germans, they say, sell in English but buy in German – which may explain why they sell a lot more to us than we sell to them. And if Mrs May happens to join in a conversation between Angela Merkel, the Austrian Chancellor and Jean-Claude Juncker that abruptly switches to German, or between Hollande, Juncker and the PM of Belgium that moves to French, she is bound to feel left out and, just possibly, a little threatened.  

But – and here’s the thing – what language should English-speakers learn that would enable us to turn the tables? The answer is, none. There isn’t one. Obviously, if you live in France, or Germany, or China for that matter, is is polite to make an effort to converse in the appropriate language. But if you move around on business, or spend time in a number of different countries over the years, or if you are simply on holiday or in town to get drunk, which language is going to serve your needs best? The answer is, English. Unless you have emigrated to Latin America, Spanish doesn’t even come close, and China, while widely spoken in its many variants in, er, China, is not a lot of use anywhere else.

Tony Blair spoke excellent (though not fluent) French. Boris Johnson, like Idi Amin, is a hoofer. He is not entirely at home in any language, including his own, but he is ready to have a go at any one of three or four until his respondents take pity on him and switch to English. In British politics, only Nick Clegg is truly a polyglot, and he is half-Dutch and married to a Spaniard.

Foreigners thus have it easy. Once they have learned English, all doors are opened up to them, no matter where they go. The poor British, on the other hand, would have to learn at least five languages, including Arabic and Mandarin, to achieve the same effortless superiority. Not very many Germans speak French. Hardly any French speak German. Educated Italians often speak French, and Spanish waiters speak all menus known to man. But English is what counts, and the irony for native-speakers is that they are thus the supplicant, hardly never the benevolent host. 

Should we care? Yes and no. We should certainly try harder to ensure that knowledge of the major European languages does not entirely disappear from our cultural repertoire. That would be both a tragedy and a significant defeat. But there is only so much we can do. Though we condemn ourselves out of our own mouths, the jury in the case has been out for many years and the nature of the charge remains a little vague.

Perhaps we should all be more like Judy Garland and just seek to confound them with our wide smile and boundless energy. Or to quote Joel Grey in Cabaret, we should say Willkommen, bienvenue and welcome … and then carry on in English.