Language Learning Through the Eyes of an Englishman

English is the world’s most global language. The reach of the English language all over the world is incomparable. Yes, speakers of Mandarin thoroughly outnumber Anglophones, but the significance of English can be felt everywhere, from a quiet Uruguayan seaside town all the way to a bustling hostel in Nanjing. Taking this into account, why would a native English speaker want to learn other languages?

The reasons are plentiful. Firstly, despite the worldwide reach of English, over 75% of the world’s population doesn’t speak a word of it. Secondly, learning a language is an exceptionally enjoyable experience, lending itself to travel and the opportunity to socialise with people whose experiences in life will have been entirely different to yours. Thirdly, and most importantly, learning a language is a matter of respect. In my opinion, there is nothing more disrespectful than expecting someone to speak to you in your native language when visiting their country, without making the tiniest effort to learn the words for ‘hello’ and ‘thank-you’. It is this long-standing impertinence on the part of native English speakers that causes people to squeal with delight and ply me with compliments when I succeed in articulating just a few words in a foreign language. In Britain, no one bats an eyelid when foreigners speak English; it has become overwhelmingly normal.

But why choose Russian? Quite simply, I was given an opportunity, took it and discovered that Russian is fantastic. There is a marvellous logic to this language that is hidden beneath the triumvirate of noun cases, verbs of motion and exceptions to the rules. These exceptions routinely baffle me, but I pull through and persevere. For an English speaker, the idea of cases, complex verb declensions and genders is a foreign concept, just as indefinite articles and elaborate tenses are to a Russian. Clambering over these hurdles is a constant struggle, but gradually you feel yourself improving, which feels absolutely fantastic. The other huge benefit of learning Russian is that I have to spend time in Russia. There is a mysterious something about this country that excites and enthrals me on a daily basis, but quite what that something is, I can’t put my finger on.

When speaking to foreigners about languages, the general consensus is that British people quite simply aren’t very good at them. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it is a fact that fewer British people speak another language than our European neighbours. 56% of EU citizens can speak at least one foreign language, whereas only 38% of British people can (British Council). This statistic doesn’t mean British people aren’t good at learning languages, just that the majority of us choose not to. However, it may be that the simple structure of English means that British people struggle to pick up other languages as quickly as people from other countries.

However, another possible reason could be to do with the way foreign languages are taught in schools. The vast majority of British people will have studied French at school at some point during their education. For me, French was compulsory, and I started learning it when nothing at school seemed particularly exciting. At the age of 10, I hadn’t yet developed a linguistic passion and was fairly unenthusiastic about my French classes. The other, big problem with the system in Britain is the overemphasis on learning the theory of a language, with very little practice. As a result, language classes tend to be rather dull and pupils are likely to forget things from week to week. Furthermore, we all process information in different ways, so one way of teaching a language will work well with some pupils, but not with others. I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic teachers in secondary school who both inspired me to want to speak languages, and showed me that I was actually quite good at them.

So how could the British system be improved? Unfortunately, any attempts may be futile, simply because us Brits know that we can happily pursue almost any career we want, without needing to learn another language. There is no fear factor. In Scandinavia, for example, the people accept that an ability to speak English is almost a requirement for them, a skill they need to succeed in life. In Britain, there is no such feeling. In fact, there is stubborn inflexibility towards learning languages. I’m forever asked: “Why do languages? Everyone speaks English.” We already know that this isn’t the case, so here is what I would suggest we do. Firstly, we need to offer a bigger variety of languages at an earlier age, so that pupils have a choice, rather than being forced to study French. Secondly, we need to make young children realise the importance of learning foreign languages, so that Britain is not left behind as the world develops. Thirdly, children need to be inspired early on; they need to look forward to their language classes and be excited by being able to converse in another language. And finally, the focus has to be on how to use the language skills in context, not just theory, grammar and vocabulary.

The Russian education system has a different approach. I don’t know exactly what happens, but I am amazed at the number of people that speak such fantastic English, without having spent any time in an English-speaking environment. For us British students, this year abroad is our one big opportunity to actually speak well in a foreign language. Our university education places so much importance on spending time abroad, to immerse ourselves with the language and culture, but Russians seem to be able to do this from the comfort of their own back garden. True, English is so readily available everywhere, in the form of music, films and advertising, that you can easily test your skills. However, this can’t be the sole reason for Russians' ability to develop such a good level of English. I’m sure there are several lessons we can learn from them. 

As you may have gathered, I am a big fan of languages. Learning Russian isn’t a chore for me, it’s a hobby. I love my degree and the opportunities that come with it. I also feel proud to represent the minority of British students that pursue foreign languages, hoping that over time, our nation will realise the importance of international communication in a language other than our own.