"Why should I bother to learn a foreign language?"

"Why should I bother to learn a foreign language?"

(Posted on 05/02/20)

Throughout the last decade or more teaching foreign languages in the UK, I have often come across the argument, “But sir, everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn a foreign language, e.g. French or Spanish?”

As a bona fide professional, I smile and aim to debunk this pervasive myth with articulate logic and irrefutable evidence.

While no one can deny that English is indeed the lingua franca of our times, our best estimates suggest that there are around 400 million native speakers, accounting for just 5% of the world’s population. Imagine going through your day and only being able to speak to one person in every 20!

“Ah yeah, but what about everyone who learns it as a foreign language though, sir, what about the French, Spanish, Germans, et cetera who all speak it?” You’re right to ask the question, so let’s consider the non-native English speakers. The most generous estimates put all English-speakers at around 1.5 to 2 billion globally. Or one in four people. Again, if you’re reading this as a member of a family of five, imagine not being able to speak to three of the others in your family for the rest of your life.

And for how long will “everyone” speak English? 2000 years ago nobody could imagine Latin not being the dominant language until the end of days – history shows us that languages rise and fall both in usage and popularity. I.e. we can’t sit back and assume that English will maintain its global presence; Spanish or Mandarin are my best bets for the language of the future.

Anyways, English will continue to evolve with new words added to the dictionary each year, and the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed the heavy-handed efforts to include a Latin phrase in each previous paragraph, offered as evidence that not each language exists in isolation from each other language. By improving your English vocabulary, you can increase your understanding of a foreign language, and quid pro quo by learning a foreign language you can increase your understanding of English.

- Ian Johnson