Sep 11

Why English speakers are rubbish at learning foreign languages.

Source: http://lesllenguesparlen.blogspot.com/p/english.html

When I was 22 years old, I had a nice little fling with a French girl I met in Beijing.  She was a fun and attractive girl who had been studying in the great Chinese city for the previous 6 months.  Completely new to China, I was very impressed with her life experiences, in particular her linguistic talents.  She spoke French, Spanish, and English fluently as well as (to my ears) some decent Chinese.  We eventually went our separate ways, but I will always remember that time when she raised her extremely French nose at me, and smugly proclaimed “You are 22 and only speak one language!”  It was clear that she felt herself to be my superior and that my lack of linguistic prowess was pathetic in her eyes; I was un-worldly.

I strongly rebuked her with what I considered a solid defense: “You grew up in the south of France just a few hours drive from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain,  I grew up on an tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!”  I had a valid point, but I knew I was getting defensive not only because I felt her admonition was unfair, but because I didn’t want to be part of one of the most accurate stereotypes of the traveling community.

English speakers are rubbish at learning foreign languages.


This conversation comes up so often whilst traveling that I though it would be worthwhile to formally address it.  Why are English speakers so rubbish at learning foreign languages?  When the question pops up no one ever bothers to argue with the premise.  Canucks (not Québécois mind), Yanks, Ozzies, Kiwis and Brits all appear to be equally inept at learning a foreign tongue to a reasonable level of fluency.  So, putting aside historical, cultural and geographical considerations, here are some reasons we have a hard time of it.

Five reasons why English speakers are rubbish at learning foreign languages:

1. We already speak the international language.

The number one reason english speakers don’t learn foreign languages is that we don’t need to.  English is the language of the world and of international business.  It is without a shadow of a doubt the most useful language for the world traveler or world citizen.  It doesn’t matter where you go – Asia, the Middle-East, Europe, Latin America, Africa, you will rarely find yourself far from someone who speaks (at least some) English.

2. We can’t decide which language to learn.

If your first language is not English, then you grow up knowing what your second language you should be: English.

If you are an English-speaker though and you want to learn a foreign language, which should you choose?  Which language will be the most useful and make the time and effort to learn it worthwhile?  For us, the choice is far less obvious and so we find ourselves never making a decision and never making the necessary commitment.

3. Hollywood is in the United States.

Nearly every other country in the world has unlimited access to English-language movies because Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world.  This means you only need to go to your local cinema for a chance to put in some English practice.  For the English speaker trying to find German-language or Chinese-language films, it is much harder.  And it is not just movies that are harder to find, it is also books, magazines, newspapers, music and TV shows that are harder to find.  More than one person has told me that they learned english by watching the entire ten season set of the television series Friends.

4. We can’t compete.

Practicing a language always comes down to 1 on 1 interactions with other people.  The problem is that everybody already speaks better English then we speak Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Thai or the dozens of other languages we may be wanting to practice and because of this the resulting conversation will inevitably be held in our mother-tongue.  We just can’t compete.  Even if we could compete, bad-english speakers tend to be more willing and more eager to practice their English than we are to practice their language.  In mixed groups we have even less hope of finding opportunities to practice as English will almost always be the universal language of the group.

5. Language #2 makes Language #3 easier.

If you have already learned one foreign language, then the next language you try to learn will come easier.  There are many many reasons for this, but generally speaking it is because you have a much better understanding of how languages are structured and you have more experience with the processes required to learn them.  Even if your first language is Swahili and your second language is German the experience of learning German will still be helpful when you apply yourself to learning Chinese.

For us English speakers, we never learn Language #2, so we miss out on the opportunity to have an easier time learning Language #3 and #4.


The five points I have listed above don’t make learning a foreign language impossible, they are simply obstacles that make it a bit harder.  The goods new is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to indicate that we are physically, or intellectually disadvantaged.

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