The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #14 March / April 2015
Extras
Why English Is Different Than Any Other Language
by Agnieszka Karch
March / April 2015 | 

When I first started learning English as a child, my motivation was always linked to wanting to have a tool that would enable me to communicate and make friends with people from other countries. Back then, I didn't realise that this goal was completely different from the goals I would set myself for all the other foreign languages I would learn as an adult.

The ultimate international language

When I was 11 years old, I began to take my language learning seriously. At that point, my understanding of the world was that there were other people in other countries who spoke other languages, and that the most straightforward way to connect with those people was to learn English – the ultimate international language.

I started attending a language school two evenings per week. It was around that time (mid 90s) that the internet started to make more of an appearance. One of the things we did in our English classes was using IRC (if you're old enough, you'll know what I mean) to chat to people from other countries. In English. Of course we chatted in English – this was an implicit rule that nobody even had to explain.

This was one of the things that confirmed my understanding of English as a language that didn't belong to anyone. English was floating in a void and filled every corner of this world at the same time. It didn't matter what country you were from and what language you spoke at home – you had English so you could talk to anyone and everyone.

My first encounter with another foreign language

It wasn't until I was 15 that I came to realise that I could actually learn one of those ‘other' languages spoken by the people I had so far only communicated in English with.

As I started college, I had to choose another foreign language that I was going to learn (this was compulsory at my school). I asked myself the following questions to help me choose my second foreign language:

  • Which language do I like the sound of the most in foreign films and music?
  • Which culture do I find the most intriguing in terms of film, literature, food and history?
  • Which country would I like to visit, get to know its people and be able to communicate with them in a language other than English?

And that's how I picked French.

I did exactly the same thing with the next two foreign languages I took up later on - Spanish and German. With languages such as Swedish and Arabic, later in my adult life, my questions were slightly different but still in the same vein:

  • Which language do I know absolutely nothing about?
  • Which language would provide me with a sufficient level of challenge and a feeling of accomplishment once I've reached a basic level of fluency and comprehension?
  • Which language is spoken in countries whose cultures I find fascinating?

Choosing English versus choosing another language

As you can see, my choice of my second and subsequent foreign languages was very conscious and deliberate. I based it on a very specific set of criteria.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this wasn't the case with English at all.

When I first started learning English, I wasn't necessarily interested in getting to know British, American or Australian people. If they happened to be among the ‘international' people I wanted to connect with, that's fine. However, learning about the culture, food or customs of the English-speaking world was initially never my priority. Even when I went to study in the UK as an international student, the main appeal for me was to meet ‘international' people (British included), rather than just English/British people.

Why does this matter?


It matters if you're a language learner or a language teacher. Understanding your own or your students' motivation for learning a language is one of the main factors that determine your/their chances of success.

If you're learning English as a foreign language, it may well be that you're motivated by the prospect of reading American literature in the original or watching Hollywood films without subtitles. It may be that you're really interested in British politics or how English is used by speakers in the former British colonies.

However, you should also bear in mind that your motivation might simply be about ‘needing to' learn English – either because that's what you need for your job, because you're going to study abroad, or because you want to travel the world without having to learn the languages of the countries you want to visit.

What's your motivation for learning a language?

Does my theory of motivation ring true for you? If you're a non-native English speaker, what was your primary motivation when learning English? What about the other languages you can speak – what pushed you towards them? Join the discussion in the 5-Minute Language Facebook group.

Agnieszka Karch is the creator of 5-Minute Language, a website with language learning tips and resources.


 
1
Why English Is Different Than Any Other Language
Writer: Agnieszka Karch
Images:
Mark Doliner: Globe
Berklee Valencia Campus: Classroom

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.

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