Unlearning Linguistic Laziness

By guest writer Elizabeth Hepburn:

As far as I’m concerned, being multilingual is as close to having a superpower as most of us will ever come. We’ve all heard the arguments in favor of bi-(or tri- or quad-)lingualism: the unique relationships that open up like doorways to new dimensions; the conflicts that can be instigated, mediated, or consciously avoided; the cultural and human insights rendered otherwise impenetrable; the de facto sense of accomplishment and subsequent boost to one’s self-worth; the myriad scientifically proven intellectual legs-up that multilinguals have over their monolingual counterparts; the scientifically ignored but easily observable idea that multilingual people are just sexier. But even in the face of all this evidence that shirking the monolingual standard is to the benefit of all, most people I know – in fact, most of the English-speaking world – remain supremely disinterested in joining the multilingual community.

Let’s take my friend Pete as an example. It should be said up front that Pete has an awful lot going for him – he’s handsome, intelligent and exceptionally well traveled, he has an excellent job with one of the most recognized brands in the world, he’s paid well, and has plenty of opportunity for upward mobility. He is, for all intents and purposes, a well-adjusted, motivated adult with an awesome life. Yet on more than one occasion he has expressed a feeling that something, somewhere, is lacking.

During a recent conversation, he mentioned that learning Portuguese would be quite beneficial to him at the office, but he hadn’t taken any steps towards learning it. “What’s the point, really? I would never use it, and it would take so much time to learn.”

This attitude towards language learning is nothing I haven’t heard before. Despite the countless arguments in favor of making the effort, we English speakers remain stubbornly, petulantly monolingual.  “I don’t have to know another language! I live in Madison/Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Salt Lake City/Topeka – everyone speaks English!” I hear this argument, which strikes me as profoundly lazy and infuriatingly typical of Entitled America, again and again and again and again, and its sheer lack of perspective staggers me every time.

Nobody (particularly nobody who speaks English natively) has to learn a new language. If you are lucky enough to already know the particular vocabulary and grammar patterns that dominate the worlds of business and tourism, you don’t have to do anything at all. The rest of the world has done all the work already.  But the mere fact that language learning is experienced as an obligation rather than an opportunity makes it clear that we as English speakers are missing the point completely.


The whys and wherefores of this unfortunate cultural lack of interest in language diversity could and do fill pages and volumes and shelves. But I’m more interested here in the slow process of unlearning our shared complacency. And I’d like to start with Pete. It may be ubiquitous, but his argument is flawed in two major ways.


According to Wikipedia, that font of endless and incontrovertible knowledge, there are nine countries for which Portuguese is among the official languages: Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Macau, Cape Verde, and the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. This brings the global population of Portuguese speakers to almost 260 million.

That’s 260 million distinct opinions and lives and thoughts and attitudes articulated in Portuguese. 260 million lifetimes of stories and experiences waiting to be told. Pete may be interesting already, but the ability to engage with the people and cultures that manifest themselves through Portuguese would give his life the remarkable potential to unfold, to grow 260 million times as rich.

But for many, the hours spent parked at the kitchen table parroting phrases from Rosetta Stone, completing tedious grammar exercises, and reviewing mind-numbing vocabulary drills is just not worth the pay-off of being a better and more well-rounded human. Because let’s face it: learning a language is hard. Right?

Well. It certainly isn’t easy. It takes dedication and time and a willingness to make mistakes. But here’s a secret that some of the most experienced language teachers the world over haven’t figured out yet: becoming your best bilingual self does not have to be an exercise in tedium.

 It is 2014. If you are an alive person, you know how to use the Internet. You are on the Internet right now. Take three seconds and unglue your eyes from Facebook and do a quick search for whatever language you want to learn. You will find that there are more dictionaries, YouTube tutorials, articles, books, television shows, movies, songs, podcasts, Twitter users, and web pages in your target language than you will ever in your entire life be able to look at.

Sift through the results, pick something you like, and continue to consume the same types of media that you consume every day, but do it in your new second language.  If you like gardening and want to learn French, watch this video.  If you like cars and want to learn Tagalog, read this article.  Order a Korean translation of a John Lennon biography and teach yourself the alphabet with this infographic while you wait for it to arrive.

 If you hate reading, have no desire to learn things, and are really just in it for a promotion or to impress an attractive person, use the Internet to find a drinking buddy who speaks your target language or a native speaker who will Skype with you. Try ChatRoulette! The struggles, failures, and eventual successes of your language learning journey will all make excellent stories, stories that you will soon be able to tell in two languages.

            Really, this is the hard part. There are resources and opportunities everywhere, but it is up to the monolinguals of the world (I’m looking at you, Middle America) to put them to good use. It comes down to the learner. There are things that simply cannot be experienced in English, awareness that can’t be reached from just one linguistic perspective. But in order to access these parts of life, you must have a desire to take up space in the world and to see it just a little more clearly. You, like Pete, must make a choice to be interested enough to be interesting.


About the author:

Elizabeth Hepburn is a teacher and professional nomad, as well as the owner/co-founder/Director of Education at DisLangue, an up-and-coming language learning company based in Paris. Born from the founders’ desire to spread multilingualism over traditional English-only education, DisLangue focuses on personalized lessons for learners of any language, drawing from each student’s individual strengths and learning styles. For more information on the project, check out the promotional video here.

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Anonymous

    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 will 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.

    • Hello! Fantastic response. You clearly have a lot to say on the subject and know your way around language acquisition. I’m going to attempt to get a hold of the author and see what else she has to say on the subject.

      If you’re at all interested in discussing this further I’d appreciate it if you would email me at languages.globe@gmail.com or connect with me via any of the various social media channels listed in the contact tab.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write such a thorough response!


  • Anonymous

    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 Russian
    MR, American, speaks English, German (bidialectal), learning French and Russian
    CB, American, speaks English, German, Korean
    CH, American, speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish and has tried learning German and Swedish
    LM, American, speaks English, German, Spanish
    ZT, American, speaks English, German and can read Latin
    MT, American, speaks English, French, German, Spanish
    PS, British, speaks English, Spanish and Korean
    RA, American, speaks English, French and German
    JH, 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.

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  • Anonymous

    The language learning tips were helpful, but…

    … this was a very generalizing read about native English speakers, especially considering that you, the author, didn’t account for many factors.

    “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 Prag 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.

    Continued in next comment…