Why are the English bad at learning other languages?

By Stellapark025 (Own work)

[CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

As I stood waiting nervously on the doorstep of my host in the hot Viennese evening, I was getting anxious. He was half an hour late, and I had no idea which of the fifty flats, on the ominous intercom list, was his. Eventually, one of the tenants approached me to ask me what I was doing:

“Entschuldigen…? [Excuse me…?]” he started.

After several years of teaching myself German, I thought I was up to the task of replying, but with more than a hint of apprehension I responded:

“Hallo, ich warte für mein Freund, aber ich weiß es nicht welches wohnung ist seine… [Hi, I’m waiting for my friend, but I don’t know which apartment is his...]”

Proud of myself for verbalising quite a complicated sentence, that probably made sense, I achieved a small glow, a small glow which was instantly extinguished as he replied in perfect English:

“Oh, you’re waiting for someone? You can come wait inside, if you would like.”

He, at least, did me the service of not apologising for his terrible English, but I sighed and wondered if there is anything intrinsic about being a native English speaker that means we are awful at learning languages. I don’t think this is a rude suggestion, only have a handful of my Anglo friends can speak any other language than English, and as a report by the European commission showed: 61% of Britons are incapable of communicating in any language bar English. That doesn’t sound too bad… until you realise that 56% of the EU can speak at least one other language, often English. Why then are we being shown up by our continental compatriots?

Repeat after me: “Je m’appelle Claude”

You could argue that it’s down to our lack of teaching. In England, we have only 216 compulsory hours of foreign language lessons compared to around 790 in somewhere like Spain; in addition, to the couple of years of language learning, we start later. Some argue later starting misses the critical period for language learning in our youth, although evidence for this being the case is debated. It seems reasonable though, the more hours learning, surely the better you are at speaking? Well… In Scotland, they have three times the number of years learning a language, but they seem to be no better than the English at speaking other languages. The example of Spain is telling too, only 54% of Spaniards can speak any language other than Spanish, this is compared to 98% in Luxembourg, 95% in Latvia and 94% in the Netherlands, just to name a few. If it’s not the amount of teaching, then what is driving Britons’ monolingualism?

Up, Up and USA

The trouble is, the British Empire and its legacy, in addition to the incredible outputs of the USA, means that there’s very little need for an English speaker to speak anything else. English is the most common second language in the world, with 1.5 billion speakers. It’s easy to see why: thanks to the USA, English has become the de-facto language for trade, science, and media. As such, it is the go-to language of many international institutions; David Crystal estimates that 85% of international organisations use English as a working language. Perhaps because of this, for many, learning English is a way to increase their career prospects, but for English speakers the effect of learning another language is negligible; a study by Sainz and Zoido showed that an American learning another language can expect a 2% increase in income, this is compared to around 15% for someone in the Baltic learning English. When you consider the time and effort involved in learning a language, for an Anglophone it hardly seems worthwhile.

Due to institutions and media, English is pervasive in many cultures which may help them acquire it. It’s probably no coincidence that EU countries that fall behind in foreign language speaking, such as Spain and Italy, generally have dubbed films rather than subtitled - a small hangover from former fascist regimes (which themselves likely had an impact). This media transfer seems to largely only go one way, as English speakers will rarely be exposed to foreign languages, whereas in somewhere like Scandinavia, English media is rife. Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a set way to learn a second language, exposure to it, and hence practice, will certainly be helpful.

Some do argue that these Scandinavian countries and Germanic countries also excel at English due to the similarities between these languages, they have the same root. This certainly helps, but I don’t find this particularly compelling reason for their bilingualism, as if it were the case then the English would excel at Germanic and Scandi languages. It also doesn’t explain the 51% of EU citizens that can speak English, many without the similar roots.

Never a need

In summary, it seems to me that combination of lack of need to learn and lack of exposure to foreign vernaculars stymies English-speakers’ language skills. We are simultaneously in the fortunate position that everyone around us speaks English so we don’t have to learn another language to get by and the unfortunate position that everyone around us speaks English so we don’t have to learn another language to get by. English is in pride of place as the lingua franca now, but that’s not to say it always will be and that there aren’t other benefits to learning a language. If we want to get better at learning languages then perhaps we should take a leaf out of our continental cousins and immerse ourselves in their languages and incentivise their use.