A few months ago - I had just moved back to Berlin - I went to a coffeeshop in my neighbourhood. For those of you who aren't that good at geography: Berlin is in Germany and the only official language in Germany is German. Many people don't even speak any foreign language. So I was pretty surprised when the waitress couldn't understand my order and simply replied: "Sorry, I don't speak German. Could you repeat that in English?". After spending some time in Berlin, I realised that there are actually quite a few hip cafes that are run in English.
You might say "So what?". But to be honest, I think how you deal with languages has a profound political power. I'm not only talking about English-speaking cafes in Berlin, but about a variety of scenarios that I have experienced in different countries. Let's look at a few examples to illustrate what I mean.
My first example is Majorca, a Spanish island. There are heaps of German and British tourists there and the restaurants have adapted to them. The menus are in German / English and you would often hear tourist use their mother tongue straightaway without even attempting to order in Spanish. My second example are French restaurants in non-French speaking countries. It seems to be a default that they print their menus mainly in French, although it is obvious that Brits, Americans and Germans aren't particularly good at French. The third and last example are Indians within India that don't use the local languages, but English for their personal conversations.
The common pattern that I see in all of those examples is that language is used to emphasise power relationships. In the case of the tourists, using their mother tongue instead of the local language is a sign that they don't even need to adapt. The tourists bring money and they want convenience. In this case, forcing the waitresses to speak German or English is part of the holiday convenience. The French restaurants use French to create in-groups and out-groups. You don't understand what artichauts à la barigoule or vol en vent means? Well, looks like you're not a true connoisseur of good food. And in the example of English-speaking Indians their use of English is a clear status symbol. Mainly private (boarding) schools teach their students in English. In order to feel comfortable enough to substitute their local language with English, they must have visited one of these upperclass schools or have spent some time abroad - which is also more an upperclass thing to do.
In the bottom line, I think the political power of language is often overlooked. I think the examples above show that languages can easily establish master-servant like relationships, discourage people from culinary experiences and reinforce social status. What is more, many people might not reflect about the impact of their choice of language. As long as you're not the disadvantaged party, you might not even realise that there is any harm going on.
And in the case of hipster cafes... Well, I think it is yet another example of the double standards in the German attitude towards expats versus immigrants. If you're an "expat" from the US or other English-speaking countries, you get a lot of freedom to do whatever you want to do. But would Germans accept if immigrants from other countries (e.g. China or Turkey) decided to run their cafes in their own mother tongue? I doubt it. Probably there would be a major anti-immigrant outcry in BILD (a German tabloid) against those stubborn immigrants. And that's the injustice I realised when I thought about English-speaking cafes and that made me reflect on this topic.