Is English an Obstacle When You Learn Other Languages?

When people decide which languages to learn, one of the most common considerations is how useful that language is.

What's useful and what's not in a language can vary, of course, but I like to think utility is typically measured through answering questions like:

  • How often can I use this language in my day to day life?
  • Can I use the language while traveling? Can I use it at work?
  • How likely am I to come across people who speak this language? How likely am I to readwrite, or hear it?

No matter which language you are learning, the answer to these questions will differ according to who you are, where you live, and what you do for work. 

But regardless of those differences, I'm sure I could survey every reader of this blog right now, and there would be one language that'd be at the top—or very near the top—of everyone's list:

English!

English is everywhere nowadays. It's taught in your schools, seen on your TV screens, and heard in your favorite songs. The Internet, quite frankly, is riddled with it. 

It's even right here, right now, in this very article (gasp!).

All of this English everywhere is great, as long as you're learning English, or need it for school, or work. 

But what if you're not learning English? What if you're learning another language, one that you care about a heck of a lot more than you do English?

Is English good then? Or is it just getting in the way?

Let's discuss the impact that the utility of English has on both language learners and non-language learners, and decide if all this English is helping or hurting your language learning.

How Does The Popularity of English Affect Its Own Native Speakers?

1. English Speakers Who Don't Want to Learn Languages

In a sense, native speakers of English are lucky; since they speak the world's most-popularly-learned language natively, they don't have to make an effort to learn other languages. 

The downside is that since English speakers don't have to learn foreign languages, they generally don't learn any at all. At most, native English speakers from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, South Africa, and so on get a little experience in foreign languages in school, but never see them as much more than an academic subject. 

And since their tenuous grasp of French, Spanish, or German will never be as useful as their iron-clad grasp of English, going much further than the basics in those languages can often be considered a waste of time.

This holds even for English-speaking natives who find themselves outside of their home countries. Since English is the language of tourism, it's exceedingly easy to find huge groups of English-speaking expats in nearly any corner of the world. 

All the English-speaking traveler really needs to do is find these groups, and they'll hardly ever have to bother with another language again, even if they live abroad for years. 

2. English Speakers Who Do Want to Learn Other Languages

Interestingly, the group of native English-speakers who suffer the most from English's own popularity are the natives who actually want to learn other languages.

In this case, the problem comes from the other side—learners of English, who only want to meet, talk to, and interact with English natives just for language practice.

Since English is popular, English speakers are popular, and it can be hard to tell who likes you for who you are and who likes you solely for the words coming out of your mouth.

Even if English-speaking language learners do get a chance to speak their target languages, they may run into another problem. If they struggle, conversation will automatically revert to the best common language. And that language, of course, is English!

How Does The Popularity of English Affect Non-Native English Speakers?

English can also get in the way of life and language learning for non-native speakers, as well.

As a non-native English speaker myself, I've seen this manifest itself in two ways: internally and externally.

Internally, English can be an obstacle when you're trying to speak a foreign language that you're not too comfortable in. Since English is popular across the globe, the temptation to switch to English can be overwhelming, especially when you're nervous.

Externally, English can be an obstacle when your social groups involve people from different countries. This is particularly common in Europe, which is a small continent that is home to dozens of different languages. 

If you're hanging out with a group of people that all speak the local language equally well, there aren't many problems. However, if even one person in that group struggles with the local language, then the polite thing to do is to (again) switch to English, the "best" common language.

How Can The Popularity of English Help Language Learners?

Despite what I've written above, it's not all doom and gloom—there are many ways in which knowing English can help your language learning, and not hinder it.

For example:

  • Since English is the most common lingua franca, there is a massive amount of language learning materials that are only available in English. For example, this means that even if you can't find a dictionary that translates between your native language in your target language, you'll most definitely be able to find one that works between English and your target language.
  • Knowing English can help you find a language exchange partner. If your native language is rare or not popular among learners, it will be difficult to find natives of your target language that can do a one-to-one exchange. However, if one or both of you speaks English (which is likely), you can use that as one of your exchange languages instead.
  • English is a great "crutch language". If you're trying to speak in your target language, but struggling to find the right word or expression, you can usually substitute the English word for the target language word, and the other person will usually understand. Just be sure to ask for the actual target language translation of it, when you get the chance!

How You Can Minimize English, While Maximizing Your Language Learning

If, despite the above benefits, you still find that English often stands between you and better language learning, there are a few things I can recommend:

First, and most importantly, learn your target language as best you can! The lower your level, the more likely you will be tempted to use English, and the more likely it is that other people will be tempted to use it with you.

Secondly, avoid "English bubbles"! Whether your a native English speaker or not, the Internet makes it way too easy to spend all of your day in either English or your native language.

If necessary, create an immersion bubble, but full of anything and everything in your target language, and not English!

Thirdly, learn how to ask common clarification questions in your target language. English most often "sneaks in" to your language learning when you have a doubt, or want to ask a question. 

What you need to do is fight the temptation, and explicitly learn how to ask those clarification questions (e.g. "How do you say X?", "Can you repeat that again, please?") in the language you are learning.

Lastly, don't let anyone force you to use English if you don't want to. There are lots of people in this world, and if you want to become a successful language learner, you're going to have to spend a lot of time speaking to people who want to speak that language with you.

If you come across someone who just wants to leech of your English skills, just minimize contact and move on.

Is English a Blessing or a Curse?

So, what do you think? Does the popularity of English help you or hurt you as a language learner. 

Is it a blessing, or a curse?

Personally, I tend to see it as neither. English is not good, nor bad. It's just a tool.

Tools have no conscience, nor morals. They can help you, or hurt you, but it's up to you to decide which it will be.

As much as I have suffered from many of the drawbacks of English outlined here, I've also benefited immensely from the language. I use it constantly—in my work, my social circle, when I travel, and when I learn. It has helped me do many, many things, including deliver this article to you, today.

I don't know what your history with English is, but I do know that, love it or hate it, it's here to stay, at least for this lifetime. So don't look at it as an obstacle. See it as a stepping stone that can help you reach greater heights!

Written by Luca Lampariello

 

  • Carlos Cerizola says:

    Amaaaaazing!!!!!👏👏👏

  • Dan Hickman says:

    Very well written article — I plan to share it with my students in my second language acquisition course.

  • Rose Barbaro says:

    Luca, If you want me to have one on one online, please please no Facebook , no blog. thank you. Can’t go through hell again.
    First direct me to the payment page.

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