Once upon a time, I used the excuse that I simply didn’t have a ‘mind for languages.’ Yet, in the last decade I’ve spent enough time with Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, to know that’s a poor excuse: language learning is not genetic, it’s experiential. Granted, some people seem to find language learning easier than others, in much the same way that some people take to new sports quicker than others and some seem more practically-minded than others (though if you were to witness my attempts at DIY, you’d know for sure I’m not in that category).
And yet, if the ability to speak different languages were primarily genetic then how come whole populations are multilingual? Luxembourg for example: the vast majority of their citizens speak French, German and Luxembourgish fluently. Populations in most African countries speak traditional languages as well as European ones. It’s a similar story in Latin America and vast areas of Asia. There are also regional variances in some countries: Welsh for example, is spoken by more than 60% of the people in Gwynedd (north west corner of Wales) but by fewer than 10% in the south eastern counties of Gwent and South-, Mid-, and West- Glamorgan. Yes, there will be genetic differences between the peoples of these countries and regions but that is reducing over time as attitudes towards, and possibilities of, moving away from one’s place of birth becomes normal.
So why then, do some people learn more than one language and others don’t? According to the OECD, 40% of the world’s population are monolingual. My bet is a substantial portion of that 40% speak English as their one language. That is not to say I agree with the cliché that ‘English speakers are lazy with languages.’ Perhaps there is a degree of accuracy in the statement but personally, I think it’s more to do with having too much choice (go with me on this one). If you already speak a major world language, then the choice of what other language to learn is driven by interest rather than necessity. It would be nice to speak Spanish, but I don’t need to. I’m a major fan of Nordic Noir films and literature, but I can always rely on English subtitles to get me by. French, Italian, Japanese, Urdu, Xhosa all sound fabulous when spoken by a native speaker, but I rarely find the need to go beyond please, thank you and two beers, my good man. I used to be pretty proficient at British Sign Language but it’s now 30 years since I worked at a school for deaf children and so those talents have gone the same way as my hairline. A real challenge would be to learn a non-Latin script language such as Arabic, Chinese or Punjabi – but again, I have yet to encounter the need for them, even though I’m relatively well travelled. Airport signs include English translations; as do the vast majority of hotels I stay in when working. If I’m still struggling, I can hop online to find the information, safe in the knowledge that more than 50% of the content is in English. So, I’ve never really found myself needing other languages. I would love to have been able to converse in the local language, but I haven’t needed to (with the exception of a ‘hilarious’ incident in China when my attempts to ask for an iron from the hotel front desk left me vacuuming the creases out of my work shirt).
Compare this to, for example, growing up in one of the Nordic countries as some of our Challenging Learning team have: it is obvious for them what language to learn as well as their own. They can’t rely on finding Danish translations in an airport in Asia or Norwegian translations in hotels in Africa. They don’t even need to understand Swedish to navigate IKEA (though of course, they still need a lot of patience to do so). For them, their choice of second language is obvious – learn English to help navigate the world. Perhaps it’s rather like being back in the days of having just one or two TV channels – the choice was obvious. Whereas today, how many of us have spent an entire evening trying to choose what to watch on Netflix before giving up because there’s just too much choice?! So, there you go: my name is James and I am monolingual because I can’t choose a film on Netflix.
Actually, it’s not just choice – it’s also about lack of opportunity: even if I wanted to learn Arabic, there just aren’t that many teachers of Arabic in this part of the world. The lack of priority at school influences language levels too – whereas my children might have spent five or more hours per week learning English as a second language in many countries around the world, they’ve barely done an hour a week of French in primary school and even then the teaching was by someone with a smattering of holiday French rather than by an expert or a native speaker. Things improve in secondary school of course, but some might say that’s leaving things too late. As for the environment around us, there are no signs in our shops or alongside our roads in languages other than English and (here on the Scottish borders), Gaelic. So, I can hardly rely on the immersion opportunities that my Nordic teammates have when learning English from the examples they encounter every day.
Things are changing though – and hopefully for the better. One of the most inspiring examples comes from the work of Sugata Mitra who set up the Granny Cloud – an initiative that is connecting ‘grannies’ with children in difficult circumstances around the world. Together they read, converse and play so that the children have access to world languages and native pronunciation that otherwise would be totally out of reach in their day-to-day lives. Then there is the Khan Academy and BBC Bitesize, both of which are making education available to children who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Their focus isn’t on language learning per se – although there are many resources geared towards learning French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Welsh, Irish and Gaelic (see what I mean about choice!). And those are just the examples I know of; I’m sure I could find many more if I took a quick look online.
However, I’d like to finish with the reason why I wrote this blog – my eldest daughter, Ava started language lessons online when her school closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Within a week, we’d signed her up with Lenny Manlay, a native of Bordeaux who’d recently set up a fabulous tutoring and translation service (see foreignlanguageassistance.com for more details) and it’s turned out to be one of the best outcomes of lockdown for her. In fact, she’s learning so much that she’s determined to keep going with the lessons even when her school reopens. Why French? Well, Lenny is French and he’s pretty damned good at teaching his native language! Why Spanish? She met a girl from Madrid a few years ago and has been friends with her ever since. So, no master plan; no strategy to learn this language rather than that one because this one will be ‘better’. Instead, she’s jumped in with both feet and is loving every second. As a result, not only is she developing her French and Spanish, but she is also learning ‘how’ language works – so much so that I suspect she’ll find learning any other languages she cares to put her mind to that much more successful. Which leaves me thinking that my ‘excuses’ were exactly that: excuses. Time to put them behind me and learn another language … so Lenny, how’s your Gaelic?!