What, if anything, makes learning English different from learning other languages?

by Henriette Hendriks

We Skyped the son of a friend of ours last week. He’s from the Netherlands and needed to interview a British citizen for his English homework. He sent an email,  in English, inviting my British partner to participate and then proceeded to conduct the interview in fluent and almost flawless English. Many teachers in secondary schools in the UK dream of the same level of proficiency in their students, I am told.

Many of you will say: “But there’s a huge difference! He’s learning English, the global Lingua Franca, so of course he wants to be good at the language. He must be highly motivated, and highly interested. It’s a useful skill and will help him get better jobs”, etc.

But I am not sure that this teenager is particularly interested in foreign languages. He’s never mentioned to us that it was a passion of his. For him English is just a normal part of the obligatory school curriculum in the Netherlands, and so you might as well try and learn the language as best you can.

In research on foreign language acquisition, it has recently been proposed that we should treat the acquisition of English as a modern foreign language differently from the acquisition of any other modern foreign languages. It was found that if one compares the acquisition of, for example, French in the Netherlands (usually the second foreign language) with the acquisition of French in the UK (here often the first foreign language), the results are not so different, whereas there are clear differences in success when you compare learning outcomes for the first foreign languages in the two countries.

But why would one want to do that? Is there any reason to think that learning English is easier than learning French? Are our brains particularly well prepared to acquire English, and not any of the other foreign languages? There is certainly no evidence for that. If any differences can be detected, then they are all contextual, to do with how society thinks about the value of foreign languages, or possibly even about the value of one’s own language. The fact that English is a Lingua Franca does not make learning English any easier. One still has to go through the painstaking process which is language acquisition, to get to a point where it becomes more pleasurable, and one can actually use the language.

So maybe learning English is helped by the fact that it is much more motivating to learn a Lingua Franca than any other language. But do we really believe that children, when required to learn a subject as part of their national curriculum, weigh the usefulness of those subjects from this very global perspective? Does our teenager in the Netherlands really make more of an effort to learn English, simply because he “can use it to get a better job”? In fact, it has been shown that this type of economic motivation does not help acquisition half as much as intrinsic motivation: the sheer desire to learn a language. For the fun of it. Because you may just like languages. Maybe, therefore, rather than focusing on economic benefits, and what one might one day be able to do with this or that skill, we should just go back to finding the fun and enjoyment in acquiring a language and making progress in it. In order to achieve that, though, we have to find a different outlook on languages in society at large, not just in the mind of the teenager at school.

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