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Why English Speakers Don't Tend To Learn a Second Language

Why does it always seem to be that it’s native English speakers who either don’t want to or cannot master a second language? All around the world you see people from Latin America mastering English, residents of the Netherlands being comfortable with three or more languages, and literally tens of millions of Chinese sacrificing every evening and weekend to work on their English. Why don’t English speakers follow suit?


What’s Going On?

Pew Research found that just 20 percent of US students learn a foreign language, compared to 80 percent in 29 separate European countries. The UK is similarly behind, with only 32 percent of 15-to-30-year-olds learning a second language. In Australia, the number sits at around 21 percent according to the same research. Canada seems to be something of an exception, but then we remember that they have two official languages from the get-go. In fact, outside of English and French, only 6.2 percent of people can speak another language.


What’s Behind It?

The way we see it, there are 3 main reasons that explain this:


1. Frustration with mechanics of other languages

English is an infuriating language for non-natives to learn, possibly because of its apparent lack of consistent rules or structure. The same is true for other languages when it comes to English-speaking students. Try explaining, for instance, that nouns have gender in many European languages, and that these genders aren’t even consistent across languages. At every turn there seems to be a great wall of grammar and rules (along with the irregular exceptions) that we have to master just to talk about our day yesterday. It’s easy to see why kids aren’t keen on the experience.


2. English being the global Lingua Franca

The frustrations of English don’t seem to stop others learning it, however. The British Council predicted in March 2019 that there are around 1.5 billion people studying English right now. Since the end of the World War II, English has steadily become the basic tool with which people of all backgrounds and cultures communicate internationally. When a Chinese college graduate encounters a businessman in Poland, it’s likely that they have English skills in common. Knowing this, the numbers of English-speaking language learners is cut merely to those with a genuine passion. The personal or professional need that drives so many others is not there for native English speakers.


3. Lack of resources

Another problem is that governments in English-speaking countries are cutting funding to language study programs. In the UK for example, as The Guardian reported in April 2019, elementary schools are relying on funding from overseas programs to get their kids into learning new languages. Other data from Refugee Action shows that the government isn’t even willing to fund the teaching of English to refugees and other immigrants, cutting the budget in real terms from £203 million in 2010 to just £90 million in 2016. Ironically, this is while many complain about the lack of English skill in newly arrived immigrants in the UK.


In the end, it seems that the battle to get more English-speaking youth into the idea of learning new languages is going to be an uphill struggle all around the world. With the advent of online resources and great flexibility in studies, however, and growing influence of emerging economies and their languages, perhaps it will start to change.


Written by: Thomas Longrigg