Learn English: anything else is a hobby

I’ve probably written about this before, but this tweet reminded me of one of my pet peeves.

My first response was, well, yes: all those non-English speakers are learning English. To which the author’s response was:

So non-native English speakers learn non-English foreign languages at approximately the rate Americans do. In short, only about 20-30% of any country bothers learning a non-English foreign language.

A lot of polyglots like to get all high and mighty about Brits and Americans not speaking foreign languages, but for non-English speakers learning English is an obvious choice with benefits which can be realised immediately. But what foreign language should a Brit or American choose to learn? The answer isn’t so obvious, and I put the question to my interlocutor:

Well, I’m a Brit and I confess it’s not immediately obvious to me I should learn Chinese I assume he means Mandarin). At least, not in the way it’s immediately obvious a Norwegian or Lithuanian should learn English. And the fact he’s listed four languages suggests the choice isn’t all that obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, you spend a few thousand hours learning Spanish and then what? You go on holiday?

And here’s the thing: people (including Mr Christensen) think being able to speak a foreign language opens doors for business and employment to a far greater degree than it does. For example, I know a Turkish lady who went to China in 1997 and learned Mandarin, and it was very useful because at that time few people spoke English. But within a decade anyone doing international business spoke English, and now it’s not really an advantage except for social occasions and practical, day-to-day living. The Turkish lady eventually left China and now works in France, where her Mandarin is utterly useless save for a few comical occasions when she meets Chinese on the street. She is now struggling to learn French, but what really matters is she speaks and writes English to full professional fluency. That is what her employers are interested in, as well as her professional skills. I know another woman, an American, who is fluent in English, French, Mandarin, and Russian. Sure, she has certain advantages when she’s actually in France, China, or Russia but she struggles for work because her professional CV isn’t very strong. Employers would rather hire an an expert who only knows English than someone with a weak CV who speaks a dozen languages. In my own case, my erstwhile multinational employer was not in the slightest bit interested that I spoke Russian: when I tried to invoke it to get assigned to Russian projects, nobody was interested.

Those who think Americans or Brits learning a foreign language will give them some sort of business or economic advantage have no idea what they’re talking about (Christensen is a professor of journalism). If you want to do business with the Chinese as a foreigner, you’re better off improving your product or service such that they want to buy it rather than wasting hours learning Mandarin. Now if you want to live in a particular country and get among the local culture, learning a language is highly recommended if not essential. But please, enough of this sneering at native English speakers for not learning foreign languages: take English out of the equation and hardly anyone else learns foreign languages either, and when they do it’s basically a hobby.

Finally, I’ve noticed a lot of the sneering comes from polyglots who were gifted languages as a child, either from a foreign parent, going to school abroad, or by growing up in a country where a second language is learned from birth by default. Those who’ve learned a foreign language as an adult tend not to pass remarks on the subject, much less sneer at those who haven’t.

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64 thoughts on “Learn English: anything else is a hobby

  1. “I can pronounce words like Llanelli, Pwllheli, and ysbyty though.”

    Gesundheit.

  2. >@Hector Drummond
    >I can see the logic in saying English is the global language of STEM… and obviously in Siemens UK I’m sure English would do you fine. I wonder what would happen if a Brit wanted to work for Siemens in Germany though?

    The same. This was a German guy from Siemens in Germany, not just one of the UK guys. And he was talking specifically about the issue of people going to work in Germany. Even in that case, there is no need to learn German, not unless you want to.

  3. “I generally agree, but it brings me back to the original question: which language?”

    Or which instrument.

    If memory serves, learning the first one is the hard bit. The subsequent ones are a lot easier, as long as they are in the same branch; so if you learn a romance language, say Spanish, then French is reasonably similar.

    For the future, assuming the African countries can get themselves sorted out, English and French would probably do fine. But you still need those other skills that people actually want to pay for.

  4. Well yes, wherever you are and whatever you do, your foreign interlocutors really are much more interested in practicing their English rather than listening to your bad pronunciation of their native tongue. Mentoring the poor foreigners to improve their international employability by increasing their familiarity with colloquial English, or at least that’s my excuse. However, I still think a foreign language or two on your CV is a good bet for expat jobs. Shows you are open minded and interested in foreign cultures, and won’t be likely to disappear two weeks after you find the local McDonalds only has goatburgers.

  5. @BiG

    Good luck with the return to work! Fingers crossed things progress smoothly.

    And to everyone else, please go for an annual check up. Pay for it yourself if your insurance won’t. You’re probably OK, but if you aren’t, you really, seriously want to know about it as soon as possible.

    This is an interesting one. Do you think a regular check would have picked you up? Perhaps this is a male thing, but I’d assumed that those people who are not in high-risk bands (e.g. due to age or pre-existing conditions) would on average have minimal gains from attending a regular check-up. I know the norm on the NHS is to offer free checks to 40-74 year olds without pre-existing conditions only once every five-years, presumably on cost-effectiveness grounds. The “go see your doctor regularly” advice isn’t especially applicable to me since I have to see my specialists at the hospital more often than annually anyway – though I don’t get a separate full-body check-up done elsewhere either – but there are family/friends I should probably nag to get themselves checked out.

  6. “But what foreign language should a Brit or American choose to learn? The answer isn’t so obvious”

    I’d suggest that while it may not be apparent for Brits, but it’s pretty clear ‘Muricans need to learn Mexican if we want to get by in Miami, some of the boroughs of New York, Southern California and much of the rest of the southwest US.

  7. I’m a South African. We have eleven official languages. Native English-speakers are about five per cent of the population. Most people over the age of 10 understand and speak English. The other lingua franca is Zulu. Very few whites have even basic fluency in Zulu. Most blacks speak Zulu between themselves, if they have different home languages.

    The problem as I see it is, why learn another language if you don’t need to? English is an extremely forgiving language. You can mess about with word order, pronunciation, irregular verbs, spelling &c and still make yourself clearly understood. Not so with practically every other language. ESL speakers are far more confident than when we English-speakers take a shot at speaking Suomi or seTswana.

  8. @Michael van der Riet: It seems to me that multilingualism is the norm in a lot of places in sub-Saharan Africa. A child would learn his “tribal” language, then the lingua franca of the area and, at school, a European language (plus, possibly, an international African language like Swahili, although it might be the same as the local lingua franca). I also suspect that you have no difficulty understanding ESL because it’s what you must be hearing almost all the time. You’re familiar with all the common mispronunciations and potential sources of confusion. Generally speaking, English phonetics isn’t that forgiving. Some learners pronounce “sheet” as “shit” and “can’t” as “c*nt.” Others have difficulty distinguishing between l and r, b and v, p and f. It takes some adjusting to understand them.

  9. @Michael

    I have never had any problem communicating with the good folk in your lovely country, Mozambique now that’s a different matter.

    By the way, and I don’t think this will surprise you and following a series of meetings I had with most of the SA top tier contractors last month, I am now not intending on entering into any contracts there. The business outlook is incredibly bad, no one is paying anyone, anymore, even relatively low risk organisations like Rand Water aren’t paying either, so if you are white guys from out of town forget it. It’s a damn shame for such a great place in my books, but business is business, we may move our African office from Joburg to somewhere in East Africa to be advised.

  10. “Do you think a regular check would have picked you up? ”

    Ironically, it was a routine check-up that picked this up, though I hadn’t scheduled it. The GP insisted we do it when I went with something totally unrelated, “because we’ve not done a routine check for a while”.

    That said, we were very lucky with the timing, but unlucky it wasn’t done perhaps 6 months to a year ago. My underlying problem is a rare, rapidly progressive form of a stupidly common ailment. It progresses so fast that almost everyone with this is, absent treatment, dead within 2 years of it starting. Patients typically present either with symptoms much earlier than I got them (the medics couldn’t believe I didn’t have any of a vast array of symptoms this can cause), or at the morgue.

  11. @BiG

    Interesting and will bear this in mind – glad you had the check-up done. Best wishes again for the recovery!

  12. @BiG

    Sounds like you dodged a bullet and may have discussed this on here before, can you say again what happened?

    My missus got me to do a full bottle MOT recently, the Doc’s secretary called me a few weeks ago to come in and I was overseas, she didn’t seem to concerned about that. I haven’t managed to schedule him in since I have been back but am reliant on the assumption that if something was wrong they would be insisting that I show up.

    I better go in next week.

  13. All the best with your recovery, BiG. I think you’ve managed to terrify at least half my readers into rushing to A&E to get a dozen mysterious pains checked out.

  14. Accent and dialect is a fun thing. I am Scots and can speak and understand nearly all Scottish dialects and a few English, Welsh and Irish and can lapse into them without realising it. Same for Strine and Muricain. This throws foreigners with whom we (I and other Scots) have been having an easy and long technical discussion but revert to dialect in our asides, however not intending to be rude. They are bamboozled and ask what language we were using. But always, trying to learn and use the local language (and drinking customs) is the best way of breaking down barriers, even though the locals will laugh at you and then carry on in English. You will have gained.

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