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Why English Speakers Need to Start Learning Languages

Why English Speakers Need to Start Learning Languages

By Suzie Kelsey

I see a lot of articles about why English speakers should focus on other things rather than foreign languages. The truth is, this is the attitude of the majority.

As a New Zealander who speaks a second language, I am often met by incredulity, and even disbelief by not only fellow New Zealanders, but also foreigners (everyone knows English natives don’t speak another language, right?!).

Why don’t English Speakers Speak Other Languages?

English is fast becoming the world’s global language, and less and less native English speakers see the need to learn a new language. Even for those that do, there are little resources available for one to really get ahead in their chosen language.

In many other countries, studies show that young people are growing up learning not only their native language and English, but a third and often a fourth language is common. On the world stage, these young students are much more likely to succeed with several languages under their belt than native English speakers with their one and only language.

Long story short: other countries have long since come to the realisation that languages in this rapidly globalising world are extremely important. Why haven’t we?

The English-speaking world needs to change their ways before they come back and haunt them. The world changes rapidly, and sometimes without warning. It wasn’t long ago that French was the world’s lingua franca, was it? It could easily happen again.

Most European students (excluding Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain, of course) are required to study a foreign language from a young age, with many also required to take up a third language by high school. (source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/). Meanwhile, if you are looking for a high school graduate from UK, USA, Australia or New Zealand who has mastered a second (let alone a third) language, you might find this a difficult, or even impossible task.

Why Should English Speakers Learn Other Languages?

It seems we are restricting ourselves, and for what reason, I don’t know. Contrary to what some people may believe, English is not the be-all and end-all of worldwide success. Yes, an overwhelming number of people all over the world learn English as a second language. But it’s not everyone. In fact, not even half of the world’s population is fluent in English. That is a lot of people we cannot reach or communicate with.

There are numerous known benefits of learning a language at any age. Enhanced brain functionality, better memory capacity and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s, not to mention better career prospects (http://mediacentre.heathrow.com/pressrelease/details/81/Brand-News-22/8417). Aside from the health and economic benefits, once you have learned one language well, it becomes much easier to master a second, which is why we see so many of these multilingual Europeans.

People who say there is an opportunity cost, and they could better spend their time learning something else, consider this: Bilingual and multilingual people, on average, are no less educated in other subjects, no less likely to succeed in life than their monolingual counterparts. In fact, they might even have an advantage.

English speakers who make no effort to learn a second language are missing out. They are missing out on the economic and career benefits. They are also missing out on the cultural eye-openers, the chance to connect with people from different backgrounds, and the chance to travel freely without being restricted by tour guides or translators.

Maybe it is the fault of our governments who do not create useful programmes and regulations to promote language-learning. Maybe it is the fault of all the foreigners who so enthusiastically study and practise English and render foreign language learning ‘useless’ for us.

Or maybe it is our own fault. For being too complacent in this world. For not caring about genuine communication and for not bothering to put in the effort required to learn something like a language.

I urge all of you English native speakers who have ‘always wanted to learn a language’. Today is the day. Pick up a book, pay for a course or watch a movie without subtitles. Maybe try and figure out what ‘Despacito’ really means. Your future you will thank you for it, I promise.

AUTHOR BIO:

Suzie Kelsey is a linguistics and languages student and avid traveller based in New Zealand. She started a blog with the aim of inspiring language learners to travel and travellers to learn languages. In her opinion, each experience can be enhanced with the help of the other.
BLOG: thewanderinglinguist.com

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