Why it’s harder to learn a language as a native English speaker
A year and a half ago I received a phone call from a colleague in France. We worked together as part of my role at the time, and he was looking for someone international to join the team in Paris, who could bring new ideas and a fresh perspective. He knew that I had been in Munich for long enough to start getting itchy feet, and wondered if I would ever consider moving to Paris.
Two facts to put the story into context: 1. Although I learned French in high school, by the age of 28, I could barely manage to order off a menu (thank you sub-par Anglophone language instruction) 2. I work in Communications.
So it was that several months later I found myself in Paris, about to start a new job in a language I could barely speak. But I was determined to make it work – I already had a slight foundation, and I was highly motivated to learn the language that is, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the world. And anyway, I knew tons of European people who spoke multiple – sometimes even five or six – languages. How hard could it be?
It turns out that learning a new language is an adult is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hard. On the one hand, your brain is just not as receptive to new languages after you hit puberty. And once you start approaching your 30s, when speaking to colleagues or new potential friends, the instinct is to have a vocabulary greater than that of a three-year-old.
None of these are earth shattering revelations, however I am here today to make a claim that some of you may find a bit contentious: I believe that learning a new language is even harder as a native English speaker. Seriously, guys, hear me out!
1. “Everyone speaks English”
It’s so easy to just shrug your shoulders and say “I don’t need to learn another language, everyone speaks English”. (I get it - this is what I told myself while I was living in Munich).
Moving to another country, starting a new job and trying to make friends is already hard enough – why subject yourself to the indignity of sounding like a three-year-old in front of your new friends when they already speak perfectly good English? The omnipresence of English is both the blessing and the curse of English native speakers.
2. Foreign language education in English-speaking countries is rubbish
I’ve already mentioned that native English speakers have the impression that everyone the world over speakers English. As a result, we learn foreign languages in a very half-assed manner.
A German colleague of mine once noted that English-speakers learn foreign languages in the way that European people learn Latin. The classes are carried out in the native language (which is really stupid when you think about it) and there is this unspoken understanding that you’re never actually going to use these redundant language skills. So you may as well learn how to count up to ten, throw in some nursery rhymes for good measure (O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum..) and then call it a day.
3. English basically has no grammar
Although it is TOTALLY WEIRD to assign genders to nouns (what exactly is so feminine about a table for instance? And just go ahead and TRY to explain to me how le féminisme – feminism – can be masculine…), it turns out that it’s kind of a thing when it comes to languages.
But it’s not just the all-purpose “the” of English which sets us up to be grammar dummies. English also has a free-flowing word order, which makes us feel particularly restricted in languages like German, where the verb needs to go at the end.
And if English grammar is simpler to begin with, there is also the fact the English-speakers simply disregard it anyway. Personally, I believe that my English actually improved during the three years that I lived in Germany, where people actually bring out phrases such as “to whom shall I address the email?”
4. Everyone wants to speak to you in English
As soon as you display some sort of accent or discomfort in speaking a new language, people are very likely to switch to English. Part of this is because people are nice: they speak English, so why should you struggle in another language (because I am trying to learn a new language MOTHER FUCKERS!). But there is another reason: people are also selfish ass-holes and they want to improve their English by engaging with native English speakers.
Personally I think the joke is one them, because, if you will momentarily reconsider point three, Native English speakers don’t necessarily speak English any better than non-native speakers (especially Germans, who are the some of the worst offenders when it comes to insisting on speaking English).
5. You can’t escape English
English is quite literally everywhere. It will haunt you in cafes, and bars where Western music dominates. It is in the cinema, where even French people are shunning dubbing. Even the new French President is speaking English in his Facebook video posts (If you ever felt bad about your French language skills please do yourself a favour and watch this video, keeping in mind that a man who is in charge of the sixth largest economy in the world just said enGAIneer). Basically, English is to a certain extent unavoidable, which effectively reduces our opportunities to practice a new language.
Despite the fact that it’s harder for us native English speakers to learn a foreign language, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Learning French has been one of the most difficult and frustrating experiences of my life (trying to make new friends in a language where your IQ appears about 50 points lower; wanting to express yourself – especially when you are excited, upset, or angry – and just not having the words). And all of this is made more irritating by the fact that you COULD be speaking English (oh yes, even in France. They will tell you that they don’t speak English, but they do ;)).
And yet, there is so much to gain from learning a new language! I believe that everyone is a different person when they speak another language and I don’t think you ever really know someone until you speak to them in their native tongue. Sometimes there are words or concepts that are actually UNTRANSLATABLE (I always find this mind-blowing) so learning a new language is often the only entry-point to completely understanding a different culture. Plus, putting the shoe on the other foot for a change opens English-speakers eyes to what it feels like making the effort to speak a second language. It requires more effort, you make mistakes in front of other people; you aren’t as funny or clever. Going through this experience first-hand leaves you more empathetic and understanding towards people who are making the effort to speak English as a second language.
Oh, and let’s not forget the most IMPORTANT motivation for learning a foreign language: you can speak about people without them understanding you! Sure, people say it’s rude to talk in another language that other people don’t understand, but that’s just because they know you’re saying nasty things about them that they don’t get ;P This is something that is practically impossible to do in English, but believe me when I say it is one of the BEST smug pleasures imaginable – it really makes everything worthwhile. However it is true that in Europe, French is not necessarily the most practical language for talking about people behind their backs either. Motivation to learn Mandarin perhaps??
Do you think it's harder to learn a language as an English native speaker? Or am I just making excuses?