Don’t bemoan your lack of a second language!

I remember reading somewhere that one of Bill Gates’ regrets was not learning another language. It was a refreshing admission to hear because I could relate to that feeling of regret. But I could also take confidence in knowing that at least there is something I can do better than Bill Gates!

One of my regrets that has pestered me for far too long is my lack of full fluency in another language. Even though I grew up in Pakistan, no Urdu ever stuck, though my  ears do perk up when I hear someone speaking Hindi or Urdu. I received a certificate in bilingualism from York University’s bilingual college, Glendon, but that was more derived from passing the correct number of French language courses. At any rate, I have rarely used French since I graduated.

Coming to China gave me a chance to retry learning a language from scratch and another opportunity to redeem myself. So I did my best studying, practicing, and plodding away. But teaching students whose English was invariably better than my Chinese, and not being pressured to achieve a certain level through any external motivations, I only acquired a base of a thousand plus characters and some conversational competence.

After the first two years, however, I stopped studying. I followed my wife, who was then my fiancee, to her hometown in the south and discovered that none of her family speak Putonghua at home. Instead, they speak several dialects/languages*: a city dialect called Huizhohua, Hakka with older relatives, and Putonghua only with classmates and non-locals. Finally, Cantonese is understood and spoken because of the proximity to Hong Kong and the city’s location in Guangdong province.

My wife can therefore speak five dialects/languages: Huizhouhua, Hakka, Putonghua, Cantonese, and English. It really is admirable, but in another important sense, it’s not that special. After all, my wife belongs to the majority of people in the world that are multilingual, many of whom did not have to work very hard. When others, usually western Anglophones, comment on her ability, she is quick to point out she can only really claim credit for learning English.

Anglophones struggle with acquiring second languages. I used to be severely critical of myself for belonging to this community, but I could pride myself in my somewhat above average (by Anglophone standards) language learning accomplishments. Any temporary feelings of pride are soon dashed when I meet someone from Europe, a trader from Nigeria, or a medical doctor from the Middle East and see how my proficiency pales in comparison.

And that brings me to my point. Anglophones have not needed to learn another language. The world has been shaped by English and the powers behind it. English has so dominated business, science, and education, that it takes a particular kind of perseverance to acquire a second language when the odds are increasingly good that you’ll meet someone whose English is better than the language you’re trying to acquire.

It’s quite clear that anyone can learn another language. For the most part it’s just a lot of hard work, particularly for older learners. In my experience, there is a direct correspondence between the amount of effort and exposure a language learner has to a language and the resulting proficiency.

It’s also inaccurate for the Anglophone to say “I don’t have a talent for languages”, and rather more accurate to say “My privilege has made it more difficult for me to find the motivation or the need to study another language”. While there are many cognitive benefits to being bilingual, it’s not the case that bilinguals are necessarily more intelligent. As the great EAL Coach Virginia Rojas said, “Of course there are bilingual dummies.”

Let’s face it, Anglophones experience a paradoxical advantage. On the one hand, English is everywhere. Non-native English speaking academics have to master their area of specialty AND devote time to communicating their findings in English if they wish to reach a broader audience. The incredible demand for English Medium of Instruction “international schools” shows no sign of decreasing until governments can offer attractive alternatives for emerging middle classes. Prejudice against accents makes it challenging for people from countries such as India or the Philippines to find employment as teachers even if English is their first language. While there are “bilingual dummies”, there are plenty of English speaking “dummies” too, who in their own estimation and too often the opinion of others, come across as polished and intelligent largely because of a native like fluency.

But, none of this is to say that Anglophones should be blaming themselves for a limited proficiency in another language. There’s more to life than learning another language. If you have a language that meets your needs, which is by definition what a living language is, then why spend the precious resource of time to acquire another? I think I could argue that the majority of my students over the years have not chosen to learn English because they want too but rather because they feel they have to. Not all my students have been as successful as my wife, even if the relative majority have been more successful than the majority of Anglophones.

It’s instructive to point out that my wife was not successful in learning French, despite taking some classes in university. She has spent this past year working really hard to study Japanese, and she made as much progress as you could considering that she doesn’t live in Japan or have a Japanese social circle. But when we went to Japan this summer, But when we went to Japan this past summer, she was still discouraged by her lack of progress and inability to hold a meaningful conversation.

Young children can learn languages well (but not automatically) because their brains are wired to acquire it. This wonderful ability to learn language in childhood is not guaranteed, but kids are more likely to acquire a native-like accent as a result. Adults can acquire fluency and a very high degree of communicative competence, which is ultimately what’s most important. Our value should not be tied to how well we are perceived to speak a language.

Now, even though monolinguals, particularly Anglophones, need not be so hard on themselves for not having acquired another language, they should be open to creating opportunities and systems so that more languages can be learned more easily. Canada has done this with the popular and widespread implementation of French immersion schools and programs. The United States faces a wonderful opportunity to embrace a bilingual character. In fact bilingualism might help it resolve some of its own internal contradictions that manifest themselves in such painful ways.

So let’s stop judging monolinguals individually for not acquiring more languages. Instead, let’s put pressure on governments and schools to embrace bilingualism and multilingualism.  Kids learn languages most naturally, and so we need to persevere through the messy challenges and misconceptions of multilingualism as we push for our schools to acknowledge that all languages matter and multilingualism is a wonderful inoculation against the linguistic imperialism that is English.


*I argue that the difference between language and dialect has to do with mutual intelligibility. A speaker from one language will not understand a speaker from another language, but they might if it’s a dialect.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for your post Graham. Very insightful. So, do we need to become like children in the method we use to learn language or is there no hope for that? Has our many years of formal education that focuses on reading and writing prohibited our ability to learn languages like a child? A child takes 1-2 years to listen to language around them before speaking it. They never write a list of new vocabulary or do grammar exercises in a workbook. Should we model that approach?

    • Not all kids automatically pick up a second language automatically, though every human, unless their is a cognitive issue, learns how to speak. Children with parents speaking two different languages and not being exposed to another common language, will develop a creole, a hybrid language that is just as sophisticated as any other language. Same for sign language.

      Kids learn differently because their brains are different. They’re primed to learn language and generally do fairly well with spoken language. With writing it can be different because writing is a very unnatural cognitive task for our brains.

      A big advantage for adults is that they can be on top of their learning and can develop high levels of proficiency if not a completely “native-like” accent. Most spoken language is full of grammatical errors and it’s a miracle that anything gets communicated at any time.

      The only consistent tip for language learning that I’ve seen is the relationship between time and effort put in and the end result. There are more or less efficient ways of learning, but at the end of the day it takes a lot of energy. Hence why I am not as critical as I used to be of myself or other Anglophiles who have struggled to learn another language. If you need to, you can, and you will.

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