I’m sure that on numerous occasions you’ve heard comments from friends, or in the media, about Brits being bad at learning languages – certainly, whenever I’m asked about my research/teaching, and I explain my interest in language-learning attitudes, this is a view raised frequently. Often, this is seen as something to lament (e.g. “Oh, it’s such a pity that we’re so bad at languages!”, or indeed “I wish I could speak another language!”).
However, upon reflection, it seems fair to say that this is not predominantly a question of aptitude. Although perhaps an extreme example, the case of Alex Rawlings, competent in 11 languages, demonstrates definitively that this can’t be true!. Rather, it is a question of attitude not aptitude, and related issues such as motivation, interest, and the way language-learning is (consciously or subconsciously) valued: many highly competent speakers of what is typically perceived as the “global” language of English often feel little need to embark upon the lengthy and complex process of learning another language. That this is prevalent in the UK (and, likely, in other predominantly Anglophone countries), leads to the erroneous conclusion that somehow we’re unable, rather than uninterested or unmotivated, to do so.
From your own experiences, you may remember foreign language teachers having attempted to stimulate motivation by raising the potential employment benefits of multilingualism. Did it work? Maybe for some learners, this was enticing – however, recent research into motivation, with a specific focus on Anglophone learners, suggests that perhaps this is not always the most effective way to encourage interest and commitment. Lanvers et al. (2016: 2) propose that for highly competent or mother-tongue speakers of English, practical arguments may fall flat – particularly for adolescents, they argue, such approaches may seem “distant or irrelevant”. This is corroborated by interesting research by Fischer (2013), who found that Scottish employers may claim languages are important (and indeed, such claims connect with great work being done by projects such as “Speak to the Future”, which seek to propose a strong “business case” for developing multilingual competence), but in practice Fischer found that recruitment decisions do not currently seem driven by whether a candidate possesses multilingual competence.
So if that isn’t always working, what might? There is current thinking among some scholars that actually, this perception about Brits being bad at languages may actually contribute in a positive way to motivation – both Lanvers (2012) and Oakes (2013) have considered this possibility that native English speakers can actually become fired up to pursue language learning precisely to bust this myth, and set themselves apart with this “special” or “unusual” skill. Certainly, in my experience, when a discussion about multilingualism arises, there’s a satisfaction and perhaps even pride in being able to say that my linguistic repertoire goes beyond English! Furthermore, there seems to be increasing focus on encouraging Anglophones to think beyond just the pragmatic gains of language learning: Lanvers et al. (2016) have recently trialled an approach at awareness-raising among adolescents which centres on facilitating discussions of the reality of the global linguistic landscape (i.e. asking learners to critically engage with perceptions about the spread and usage of the English language worldwide), as well as potential cognitive benefits of learning languages (i.e. the possibility of the positive impact that bi- and multilingualism can exert upon the brain – see also this article). There is, furthermore, growing appreciation of the importance of sharing ideas about wider social and cultural benefits of language learning (see for example this World Economic forum piece). Indeed, this is a major area of focus for the MEITS project.
So next time it comes up in conversation, or in the news, stop and think carefully: are the Brits really bad at learning languages? Or is there more to the story than that…?
Fischer, M. (2013). Employer demand for languages graduates in Scotland: a case study in the Financial Services sector. Scottish Languages Review, 26, 3-12.
Lanvers, U. (2012). ‘The Danish speak so many languages it's really embarrassing’. The impact of L1 English on adult language students' motivation. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 157-175.
Lanvers, U., Hultgren, K., & Gayton, A. M. (2016). ‘People can be smarter with two languages’: changing anglophone students' attitudes to language learning through teaching linguistics. The Language Learning Journal, 1-17.
Oakes, L. (2013). Foreign language learning in a ‘monoglot culture’: Motivational variables amongst students of French and Spanish at an English university. System, 41(1), 178-191.
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