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Life is hard for native lingua francans learning new languages. But why do they do it at all?
I mean, the reason for this should come as no surprise.
English is the current lingua franca of the world, and so any American, Brit or other native English speaker that wants to learn a foreign language is essentially doing so out of personal interest or as a courtesy. The lingua franca thing means that there’s this implication that everyone has to learn that language in order to succeed in business, politics and the arts at a global scale, but of course that doesn’t apply to native speakers.
So native speakers get lazy.
Which, again, kind of makes sense. If we accept for a moment that language is a technology – a system or operation created by man to make life easier – then native English-speaking language learners are kind of like classic car enthusiasts. Most everyone drives boring, modern automatic transmission Toyotas and Fords and Peugeots, but there is a subset of people that love to drive Citroën 2CVs or VW Bugs or even restored Thunderbirds or Model Ts. It doesn’t really serve any practical purpose to them – they’ll still drive their Mazdas to work – but it’s fun. And if they happen to be in a place like Cuba, where classic cars are still used regularly, their skills might actually come in handy.
I know, that seems like a sad light to throw on the task of language learning. We want to believe what we’re doing isn’t just a useful skill, it isn’t just practical, it’s actually making the world a better place. That’s what I believe when I’m slogging through grammar or shaking off the embarrassment of speaking poorly in public. I have to, or I wouldn’t do it: I believe that by reaching out and learning another peoples’ language, I’m increasing the net empathy of the human race. I’m taking off my shoes and trying on yours so that one less person thinks their shoes are the truth. By learning a language, we’re making humans care about each other, one word at a time.
But in reality we do it for us. We do it because it’s fun, or in a few cases we do it because we have to, though that’s usually related to a romantic entanglement rather than business, politics or the arts. English native speakers, generally speaking, don’t have to learn another language.
So when they do, it’s harder. In Europe, a continent with 23 officially recognized languages and over 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, speaking two or three languages growing up is not at all unusual. In fact it’s more unusual to be monolingual, at least in the bigger cities. This is quite the contrast from the USA, where people don’t learn a second language unless they’re forced to in school (and rarely does that lead to any actual comprehension, let alone fluency) or grow up in a household or community where multiple languages are spoken.
I wish it were different. I do think learning new languages can change the world. I think it’s extremely important to broaden your horizons and try new things. It’s a big world out there, with lots of people living different, fascinating lives, and many people, especially native speakers of any accepted “global language,” need to learn some humility now and then.
What do you think? Can language learning change the world, or is it just a fun hobby? Will English always be the lingua franca or will we see another take the throne in the future?