Devil’s Advocate: Epic Response to “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness.”

 

Last week we featured a guest post from the amazing Elizabeth Hepburn titled “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness” discussing the aversion that many monolingual English speakers – particularly in certain parts of the United States – seem to hold towards the learning of a second language.

One anonymous reader left a fantastic, well written and insightful counter comment that I found worthy of reposting as an entry of its own.

I attempted to reach out to this individual, inviting them to send me an email to discuss it further, but the problem with anonymous commentors is that they are, well, anonymous  – most of them having no interest in replying again, which is unfortunate.

I’d ask you to check out “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness” prior to reading this writer’s response, but in either case this is an interesting read, so tell us your thoughts!



  

I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with the writer 100%, but their words are absolutely worth hearing.

The only edit I made to the original comment was to break up the paragraphs a little more to make it more visually palatable.

Where do you stand on this debate?

~Brian

The rest of the world has done all the work already.” is a very misguided statement. There are many non-native English speakers who are and choose to remain monolingual in countries around the world. I lived in South Korea where the majority of people, despite the country’s large investment in English learning education, do not speak English. Outside of work and my circle of English-speaking friends, my conversations were largely conducted in Korean, albeit very basic Korean, and I lived in the second largest city, Busan. This was 5 years ago though, so who knows, maybe things have changed. I’ve also lived in Argentina and am now living in Germany and have come across plenty of monolingual speakers in both countries. It’s not just English speakers who are multilingual deficient.

I’ve travelled to China, Japan, France, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic – only in the last two countries did I have a genuine conversation in English with all of the people I spoke to (I was in Prague and in Denmark, English is very widespread, so it wasn’t too surprising) – in the others I had some conversations in English with some people and other conversations with some people in a mixture of their attempt at English, my attempt at local language, and gestures.

In the Netherlands, I actually spoke German since it was a border town.I am a speaker of foreign languages, yet I resent the pressure that is being placed on native English speakers to learn other languages in articles such as these when these speakers can choose to form their own identifies however they want. If you are embarrassed about how outsiders see native English speakers based on the fact that they can’t or don’t want to look past their countries’ own shortcomings, then that’s on you, not on the people who you claim refuse to learn a foreign language for a perfectly legitimate reason.Have you ever thought that maybe the people you’ve asked about learning a foreign language are responding the way they do because of how you approach the subject?


Maybe they are being defensive for a reason? In all of my interactions with native English speakers who speak no other languages, they have all asked me questions about my language learning adventure, have asked me how to say certain phrases out of genuine curiosity, or have asked me to just talk to them in a foreign language so they could get a feel for it. They’ve all really had an interest and yeah, most of the time, their response is “Oh, I wish I were that talented” or “I would love to learn another language, but reasons”, but you know what, I just take it as spreading the seed of language learning love and maybe one day that might lead them to taking up another language.
No one, except maybe two people, has told me that there is no reason to learn another language.

Most of them have just said they didn’t feel they were talented enough. As we both know, language doesn’t take talent, it takes dedication.

Learning another language usually stems from necessity or interest. If a person doesn’t see the need, then there generally is no motivation, especially when that person has many other much more important responsibilities in his or her life. Ever spent time with a kid with bilingual parents? The kid will generally begin to respond to his or her parents in the main language of the country, particularly if the parents know the language of the country, because to that kid’s mind, that language is of more use.
This is basic language acquisition 101.

If a person doesn’t have an interest in becoming multilingual, then it’s no big deal. I don’t like American football because that is my preference – I have zero interest in it. That is also no big deal, and I would hate for people to tell me I’m less cultured and more stupid than they are simply because of a lack of interest. Or that playing gridiron would be beneficial for me because of reasons.

 However, my interest lies in languages and I know, in fact, many native English speakers who are multilingual, or at least on their way to becoming a polyglot.. I’ll give you a small list of people I know personally (initials, nationality, languages): 

Me, American, speaks English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, learning Polish, have learnt Swedish, Korean and RussianMR, American, speaks English, German (bi-dialectal), learning French and RussianCB, American, speaks English, German, KoreanCH, American, speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish and has tried learning German and SwedishLM, American, speaks English, German, SpanishZT, American, speaks English, German and can read LatinMT, American, speaks English, French, German, SpanishPS, British, speaks English, Spanish and KoreanRA, American, speaks English, French and GermanJH, American, speaks English, Spanish, German, Kurdish, Arabic, Korean

I actually know quite a few others like these people and dozens of others who grew up bilingual.

Ever heard of Richard Simcott, Benny Lewis, Ellen Jovin, Simon Ager, Tim Doner, Conor Clyne, Sonja Lang? All of these people, all native English speakers, are well-known in the polyglot world. There are more well-known native English speaking polyglots than polyglots whose native languages are not English.

You are also not accounting for the fact that the US, Canada and Australia are some of the largest countries in the world where the population density is lower many other countries. The need for learning another language is low in areas with low population density.

However, in states, provinces and territories, where there is a high influx of immigrants from the same country, then bilingualism might eventually become a necessity, but this generally happens over a period of many years. This situation is much different from situations like the one in Europe where if one lives on the border, the need for learning the language of the neighboring country is higher. For example, many Italians in Northern Italy might learn German before they ever learn English.

Additionally, it was forgotten in this article that even when native English speakers put their best efforts forward to learn the language of the country they are visiting, they say a couple of phrases and that’s about the extent of the practice they get because the shopkeepers, servers and so on switch to English at the first sign of trouble with communicating.
I’ve been living in Germany for 2 years and have been learning the language for 14 and two weeks ago, a waiter switched to English, even though I had prior spoken to him in near perfect German, because he heard me and my friend speaking English to each other, never mind the fact that my friend and I had also communicated with each other in German right in front of him.

I have Germans acquaintances who STILL try to speak English with me when I have expressed to them that I am not here to be their English teacher. I am very adamant about people speaking German to me because it’s a matter of survival, but I can understand a native English speaker wanting to give up after spending time in the country whose language he or she tried to learn and where no one had given him or her the time of day to practice.

My mom is learning German, my brother speaks German (though has lost a lot due to lack of practice) and I expect when they come to visit me in September that the natives here will switch to English at the first sign that they speak English as their mother tongue.

You would not believe the sheer number of people who have outright ignored my request to speak the language of the country because they thought it to be more important for them to practice their English. I can understand how many people might respond with “There really is no need to learn another language, especially when people don’t respect my efforts.” It’s tiresome.

I think you have simplified a very complex issue and owed the lack of language learning in native English speakers to mere laziness when that is simply not the case. You cannot generalize everyone’s motivations for their choices.”

–Anonymous


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  • Thank you for linking to my blog!

    You are right: this is a powerful response.

    I would summarize this response to the previous post as this: Americans are perfectly capable of learning languages, but they don’t feel the need. Speaking other languages can even be thwarted by native speakers.

    I agree that most Americans do not see the need. For that matter, I agree that most American school principals don’t see the need, either.

    Human beings–Americans or otherwise–are not only motivated by economics or some such need to learn languages. They are also motivated by curiosity and love of other people and cultures. I think a lot of these people could be encouraged to–not shamed into–learning a language. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. I just wish there were more “troughs” around out there, just in case we get thirsty.

    I’m going to flesh out these ideas more in a blog post of my own. Thanks for your post!

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for reading! Glad to see it has inspired you to write a new post!

  • Elizabeth Hanchett

    I personally agree with Anonymous. I grew up in Spain, which has very interesting views on language and multilingualism. Spain’s linguistic culture is part of what got me interested in languages. But I digress.

    Most Spaniards still only speak one language: Spanish. If they speak another language it’s a regional language, one which you’re hard-pressed to find speakers of outside of the region unless you know where to look. It’s not just Americans or English speakers who are monolingual. We actually have an advantage because we speak a language so widespread and so widely known that we feel less of a need to learn other languages. Not saying that we shouldn’t, but I’ve had Spaniards tell me upon finding out that I’m American and that my mother tongue is English, how lucky I am to have been born in an English-speaking environment. This is a language that so many people spend years struggling to learn that some of us are able to speak effortlessly due to being born into environments that promoted it. Multilingualism is still an ideal, but it is not the norm in much of the world. Most people just don’t feel a desire or need to express themselves in another language. Such is life.