It’s widely believed—and universally stated by Brits—that the English and people from English-speaking countries in general make very bad linguists. But is this a fair assessment?
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network effect: a business phenomenon by which the value a user gets from a good or service depends on the number of users of compatible products
head-start: an advantage, especially in a race
course: duration or development of sth over time
idiom: particular style of expression
choice architecture: in economics, the impact of presentation on decision-making (e.g. the visual distribution of chocolate in a supermarket)
make a case for sth: to defend a choice
in light of sth: because of sth
let’s say: let’s imagine
tipping point: the moment when an accumulation of small changes are enough to cause a larger change
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Are Brits really bad at languages?
Most Brits would agree we just don’t make the effort to speak and learn foreign languages, and that’s generally attributed to our own failings, overconfidence, smugness, or lack of interest.
However, if you look at it from a point of view not of individual agency, but of network effects (a concept explored in a book called ‘Positive Linking’ by Paul Ormerod), you suddenly realise that it’s rather more complicated than that.
Let’s imagine a Dutchman considering whether he should learn English, versus an Englishman deciding whether to learn Dutch. The gains to the Dutchman in learning English are possibly a hundred times greater than vice versa, since English will be useful to him wherever he goes, even when speaking to people for whom English is also not their first language. It will be of use to him in countries like France, and even in former Dutch colonies like South Africa or Indonesia.
In addition, he has a head-start, since he’s consumed something like 10,000 hours of English-language TV over the course of his life, so things like English idiom and intonation will come fairly naturally to him.
Furthermore, to the British person wondering whether to learn a foreign language, the first challenge is to decide which one. The choice architecture is a complete mess; you can now just about make a case for Mandarin Chinese, maybe Spanish, or even Portuguese, but it isn’t a clear-cut or obvious thing. In light of this, it’s extremely unlikely that there will be any social effects. If the Dutchman announces that he’s thinking of improving his English, he will find four or five other friends who say “I agree with you. Let’s go and do something about it together”. Meanwhile, if I suddenly have the urge as an English speaker to learn Turkish, I can be pretty sure my friends will say “You’re on your own, mate!”
Now, let’s say I put a huge amount of effort into learning Dutch. In that scenario, my Dutch only becomes useful to me in real terms once my Dutch is better than the average Dutchman’s English, and that’s really difficult unless you live there. Even if you do, they will try and reply to you in English anyway. So while a Dutchman actually gains from learning English incrementally (bit by bit, word by word), an Englishman only gains from learning Dutch once he reaches some vital tipping point of extraordinary fluency, which makes the whole thing completely unequal and, thus, not entirely our fault.
Adapted from this video by ECP coach Ali Keable
Let’s chat about that
- Do you agree that British people are bad at learning languages? Why (not)?
- What is your experience of speaking English with British people?
- What about Spanish?
- Do you think Spanish-speakers are good at learning foreign languages? Why (not)?
- What case does the article make in defence of people who speak English as a first language?
- After reading this article, do you feel a bit more sympathy towards Brits?