“Oh…right…languages were never really my thing.” There cannot be a Modern Languages student anywhere in Britain who has not heard these words after being asked which subject they read at university. Some people just cannot understand why anyone would want to learn another language – “but everybody speaks English” – and others are astounded by the fact that you’re even attempting to do so. Indeed, it is estimated that over 95 per cent of the British population are monolingual English speakers. So why are the British so reluctant to expand their linguistic prowess?
Being a languages student at Oxford makes it very easy to forget just how ingrained this reluctance has become, especially in young people; there is a tendency to believe that not learning a language during your teenage years means that the opportunity is lost for good; three out of four UK adults cannot speak another language well enough to hold a conversation. This brings me to the first of the most common excuses for not learning a language:
1. “I’m too old.”– It’s a widely-held belief that the optimum age for language learning is younger than seven – giving you an almost comically narrow window – but, in truth, it is never too late to learn. It’s true that research suggests that the brain becomes less able to adapt itself in response to new experiences as you get older, making the acquisition of an authentic accent and pronunciation more difficult, but some aspects, such as learning vocabulary, are easier for older people. Also, the mental health benefits of bilingualism do not decrease if you do not start learning until adulthood – indeed, they may actually increase as different parts of the brain are activated – and include the delayed onset of dementia, improved memory, and increased attention. Anyone with determination and the right attitude can get their head (or tongue) round it.
2. “Everybody speaks English, so why bother?”– This is somewhat harder to dispute, given that English is the second most commonly spoken language in the world, with 1.2 billion people speaking it as either a first or second language. Who hasn’t experienced the mortification of valiantly trying to speak to a native in their own language only to be answered in near-fluent English? The French are the worst for this, hating to hear their treasured language being butchered by some useless English person. However, surely this in itself is enough of a reason to attempt to learn another language to a competent level. The classic stereotypical image of British tourists speaking English loudly and slowly to natives is mortifying and yet often painfully accurate, and, speaking from personal experience, foreigners are taken aback and even impressed when you can successfully communicate with them in their own language. Who doesn’t love defying a stereotype? Limiting yourself to English on the basis that it is widely spoken is to miss out on a vast array of cultural experiences. Foreign literature is always best experienced and understood in the language in which it was originally written, and offers valuable insight into history and the world seen from another perspective, whilst humour and country-specific customs are often simply untranslatable. Beyond the practicality offered by speaking another language, it opens the door to a whole new cultural world.
3. “I just “can’t do” languages.”– Most people’s language learning experience is limited to the classroom which, unfortunately, tends to involve doing lots of tedious (but necessary) grammar exercises, talking about their favourite holiday, and learning whole oral exams off by heart. Languages at school are a bit like Marmite, and those who don’t get to grips with them presume that they lack linguistic capacity and give up as soon as possible – which can now be as early as at the end of Year 9. However, just because you struggled at school, it doesn’t mean that you are inherently linguistically inept. Learning a language later in life is completely different, with a whole range of resources available, including podcasts, CD courses, and an array of useful websites. The looming presence of exams disappears, making the whole experience more enjoyable, and you can learn completely at your own pace, dedicating as much or as little time to it as you want. Also, chances are that somebody learning a language post-school actually wants to be doing so, and they find that, actually, they can do languages.
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