When the topic of languages comes up in conversation, people are sometimes surprised to hear how many languages I speak. The reactions mainly break down into two different groups:

  • Native English speakers: "wow, that is so cool! I could never learn languages…"
  • Non-(native)English speakers: "you are so lucky to be able to speak English! you can go anywhere as long as you speak English."

There are a few different things going on here which I want to unpack.

The blonde isn’t really following what is going on

Why learn a language?

While it’s very fashionable for people who speak English as a first language to talk about wanting to learn another language (or wanting their children to), there’s one question I always want to ask: "assuming you learned another language - what would you use it for?"

The big English-speaking countries (US, Canada, UK, Australia) are pretty homogeneous. Aside from a few enclaves (hello, Quebec) relatively few people aside from recent immigrants speaks anything but English as their primary language. If you don’t speak a language frequently with native speakers, you never learn it properly. Worse, if you don’t regularly use even a language that you do know, you will lose it!

The other side of that coin is that everybody else wants to learn English too. If a Finn, a Russian, a Ghanaian, a Mexican, and an Indonesian1 want to do business together, guess what? They’re all going to speak English to communicate with each other.

The time when international diplomacy was carried out in French is long past. My father-in-law, a mechanical engineer, studied German rather than English, because at the time that was what you learned if you wanted to do Serious Engineering with other Serious Engineers (at least in Europe). No longer!

Who do you speak to?

This leads to my second point. English is easy to keep up as a second language, because English-language content is everywhere. I am raising bilingual kids on the basis that all of their TV, films, books etc. are in English, and they speak Italian out of the house with their friends. This sort of arrangement is easy with English: our cable TV lets us choose different audio tracks, as do media we buy through iTunes. This means we can "enjoy" Paw Patrol, Dora the Explorer, and Daniel Tiger in English, just as if we lived in an English-speaking country. If you still use physical media, DVDs also generally come with several language tracks.

Getting the same access to media in another language is much harder. That same cable subscription only offers a handful of channels where languages other than English are even available, and the content is, ummm, not riveting. It doesn’t help that I don’t watch much TV in the first place, so something has got to really grab me to make me stick with it.

For native English speakers, this means that they are up against a significant block. It’s one thing to say you want to read Borges or Marquez in the original Spanish, and you might even force your way through one book - but when you want to relax, you’ll turn to something fluffier, and that will tend to be in English just because that’s easier to access. The same goes for news. I know, because I’ve tried. I do make a point of picking up paper copies of Die Welt or whatever when I’m in an international airport, but all of my Twitter and RSS stuff is coming in as English - even from people who are not native speakers - and so my online activity is almost entirely anglophone. I will come back to this point, because it’s important too.

Borges all the way (with maybe a Beano tucked inside)

Pity the English!

There is a double-whammy for English speakers, because (at least among European languages) English is about the worst starting language. All the hard edges have been worn off the language, leaving no real structured grammar to speak of, so learning a second language starting only from English is twice as hard because students have to learn both the concept of an adverb and how an adverb actually works in whatever language they are learning, all at the same time.

This reminds me of one my favourite quotes, from James Nicoll:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Back to grammar! I remember studying German in a class full of English people. It took me a while to figure out why all of them were struggling with what were, to me, pretty basic and obvious concepts. The answer was simply that having learned Italian at school, I had spent literally years breaking down sentences into their component parts (analisi logica), and had then taken that even further in studying Latin and classical Greek. As annoying as this was (and as poor a student as I was!) at the time, it was an invaluable foundation for learning other languages.

Not having been exposed to real grammar before, English-speakers are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to learning any second language. This same topic came up in a recent episode of the Futuropolis by Popular Science: Talk Emoji to Me.

Language is a circle

Bottom line: languages are not magical. I love learning languages as a hobby, and I am enabled to do that by background, education, and no doubt some native aptitude2. Languages have certainly helped me in my career, because even people who can communicate perfectly well in English appreciate when somebody goes to the effort of learning their language well enough to conduct the meeting that way.

The reason this worked, though, was that languages were another circle for me. I was the person who could do X and had a background in Y, and could also do it in language Z. If I had only had the language skills, I would not have got anywhere. If your choice is between learning a skill and learning a language, nowadays the skill is almost certainly the better investment.

Unless you just enjoy language, in which case I’ll see you out there, making friends with people at the bar, tripping over false friends hilariously, and generally enjoying myself with languages.

  1. You thought I was going to go with "…walk into a bar", didn’t you? 

  2. I am a cunning linguist3

  3. Sorry - not sorry.