Since everyone speaks English, is there much point in learning other languages?

language acquisition linguistics May 30, 2022
A mum and toddler baby girl looking at a laptop and learning languages

As a nation, we’re pretty notorious for being “rubbish” at languages. But this wasn’t always the case. Throughout British history people did learn different languages – and this wasn't limited to the elite.

So what's changed? Over the last 5 decades there has clearly been a decline in English speakers choosing to learn other languages, and one of the reasons is that English has become an international language.

With over 1.5 billion people speaking English, it’s also the international language of many industries. This began with the British Empire spreading English throughout its colonies and then more recently America's dominance over cinema, television, popular music, trade, and technology (including the Internet) has made English even more universal.

Wherever English speakers go in the world, they don’t HAVE to speak other languages. They can just rely on the fact that residents of that country will probably know English. Generally, if you are a monolingual speaker, you will get along better as an English one, and the pressure to learn other languages is not there.

Well, this sets the scene as to how English became an international language, but why is there such a resistance to learning other languages by English speaking monolinguals in the UK?

The English disadvantage – are we inert linguists?

To explore this notion of linguistic inertia, neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Bak uses an example of someone who spends their day working from home. The only exercise they need to do is move from their bed to their desk. In order to lead a healthier lifestyle, this person would need to make MORE effort to do some exercise.

Surely this should be the same for English-speaking monolinguals? There is no requirement to do the extra language learning, but this should give us the motivation to make more effort to promote language learning. However, the opposite of this is happening. We have become linguistically inert.

In the same way we have educational campaigns recognising it’s not a good thing to lead a physically sedentary lifestyle, we should be raising this awareness about language learning.

But why should we have this motivation to promote language learning? Why should we be raising awareness?

Because the value of learning a new language does not just lie in the end product i.e. knowing a new language. The process of language acquisition is a full workout for the brain (even delaying the onset of dementia better than any drug!) and also carries with it numerous other benefits:

1. The skills gained during the process of language learning are very transferrable in learning other languages. In learning another language we become aware of the grammar, structure, thinking and logic. As we learn further languages we soon begin to understand the differences and similarities in structure – both from a grammatical point of view and a linguistic point of view. As our languages knowledge increases the process of learning further languages can become easier.

2. Learning languages makes us better at solving problems. In training our brains to acquire other languages, we are simultaneously skilling-up in being able to find a solution to a problem whether that's in learning a new language, solving a mathematical equation or even pulling apart a philosophical argument.

3. Learning languages makes us more open minded as people and more empathetic of diversity and culture. We are not just learning the language for the language’s sake but for the whole person.

4. Our skills become transferrable in other areas too. Learning languages benefit us hugely in our ability to think outside the box, to be able to analyse, innovate and find solutions which are all skills that can be applied not only to other subjects but throughout our daily lives and in future careers. These are the skills that employers are looking for!


So why aren’t we seeing the value of language learning in the UK?

1. UK society seems to devalue “other’ languages – right from the top down.

For example, every 10 years each adult in the UK receives a list of question to answer for the census. They go like this:

(1) ‘What is your main language’ and (2) – only for those who did not answer ‘English’ to the first question – ‘How well can you speak English?’

As Mark Sebba and Wendy Ayres-Bennett state in their article ‘Censoring multilingualism? Language questions in the 2021 Census':

“For the first question only one answer was permitted, reflecting the monolingual mindset which also underlies the assumption that everyone must have a ‘main language’. For the second question, the respondent was required to choose between ‘very well’, ‘well’, ‘not well’ and ‘not at all’. Both questions were, in our view, problematic. As was clear from the 2011 census, they result in the collection of incomplete and unreliable data about England’s rich multilingualism and a missed opportunity to capture accurate knowledge of the population’s linguistic and cultural competence in languages other than English, a valuable (but undervalued) resource for British business, trade and the economy, diplomacy and soft power, integration and social cohesion.”

There is a profound negativity towards multilingualism that is delivered to our doorsteps every 10 years from the institutions that govern our country.

Another example is health visitors telling multilingual parents to stop speaking their home language in order to prepare their little ones for school!

Both examples show how multilingualism is perceived as a problem.

2. Society’s values also filter in to the education system where any languages that aren’t “core” languages are perceived as a disadvantage – these children are going to require extra help, extra resources, extra money spent – when in a typical primary school within our cities dozens of different languages may be spoken by the children as they go about their daily lives. The language children speak in class is perhaps just part of their rich linguistic tapestry. Multilingual is actually very normal!

3. Language subjects at school are something of an after-thought. Languages have been pushed aside to be so minimal in order to “make way” for literacy, numeracy and STEM (again because languages are not perceived to be as valuable).

But this misses the point that the transferrable skills gained in learning languages strongly complement learning other subjects. This should be embraced, yet in reality many English monolingual speakers have very little awareness about their own language structure and grammar!

4. Learning languages at school is rudimentary. In primary school the curriculum is topic-led such as learning colours, animals, clothes, numbers, how to say “my name is” etc. Yet this is a fairly disjointed and uninspiring way of learning that often lacks a meaningful context.

So what’s the answer?

We believe that making languages a fun, enriching and real part of our children’s day to day, without worrying about the end product, is the best way to explore languages.

We can choose to give value to languages or devalue them. We don't have to accept what our education system offers, but can take charge of our own family's linguistic experience ourselves.

You don't have to wait for your little ones to learn languages at school. You don't have to accept what the education system currently offers in the UK (or anywhere!). You can carve your own journey into the amazing world of languages and reap all the rewards.

Our Children's Languages Adventure allows parents who may not feel confident with languages to explore new languages with their little ones in a fun, nurturing environment with no pressure. The CLA has been written by languages teacher & mum-of-three Cate Hamilton. She uses songs and stories to explore different languages, and fun play-based activities. As well as equipping parents with the understanding on how to incorporate languages into their family's daily life, the CLA will boost grown-ups' confidence with languages too.

So, to value or devalue languages? That is the question. What will you choose to do?

Ready to start exploring languages with your little ones?

Join our Children's Languages Adventure! For just a single payment of £39.95 you'll receive lifetime access to 32 multilingual singalong videos & 100+ downloads, plus access to the BB online community.

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We explore the real science behind how young children learn to speak, along with tips for learning languages with your little people and some awesome FREE languages treats!  

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