Five myths about language learning: Myth 4

Why bother when everyone speaks English anyway?

Okay, so before I sit down and watch the highlights of last night's opening of the London Olympics, I had better get this blog post covered. Not lastly, the topic of our Myth 4 is rendered pretty current by such an international event, because now we're looking at one of Britain's absolute favourite reasons to avoid language learning: the belief that "everyone speaks English". Some of the parties that like to promote this myth are tabloid papers, right-wing politicians (often guising it as "holy crap! people dare enter our country and bring their own languages!") and, scarily enough, some of the learners themselves.

Language learning is about connecting with people, making your own life easier and understanding more about how people express themselves and what for. It should go way beyond parroting "Where is the supermarket?" and "I have a brother and two sisters", and be seen as a way of reflectively engaging with how people communicate. If you're only ever going to view another language as a means of obtaining basic necessities during a brief stay abroad as a tourist, then you're losing 90% of the benefit. Take, for example, the intricate system of Japanese honorifics or the special German terms referring to 20th century history (Ossi, Wessi, Ostalgie etc). Language evolves with society, and that's what's amazing about it: You'll get to know another place's history, values, food, traditions and so much more. And you don't even have to travel there.

Secondly, it may not have occurred to you that the feeling of pointlessness as you stare at a jungle of verb tables is much more closely related to language choice than lack of necessity. I believe schools would see a much higher rate in language take-up if they were able to offer a wider choice of languages. Maybe French was never much to get you going, but your love of yoga makes you wish you could read Sanskrit.

Now, what's

Or you would love to cycle through Spain, haggle 40% off a cashmere scarf from your local Indian market stall, get in touch with your Gaelic roots? It certainly worked for me, studying my way through the lyrics of Pulp's whole musical oevre with a dictionary by my side.

One final point: Yes, a very large part of the world now learns English as a second language. It's an also-ran official language in countries like India, Nigeria and Cyprus. Having said that, this doesn't mean that it is the international community's preferred language. Even the British Foreign Office seem to have recognised that you miss out if you're the monolingual guest at the world's multilingual party. The amount of literature, film, theatre and music from another country that doesn't even make it into an English-speaking country is staggering. It's like looking at a painting and only seeing one colour.

Luckily, the many other positive reasons for picking up a foreign language are only a google away. No one says that this is something you have to do, but just think how fun and enriching it would be to start seeing in colour.