Attitudes to language learning

Think about, for example, how many Japanese speakers of English get looked upon unfavourably for their English, and […] never receive any praise for being speakers of English, whereas think about how many white people who live in Japan and learn Japanese are adored, admired, praised for their ability to speak Japanese.

But if you think about it, English and Japanese, it’s the same pair of languages, the same distance, the same difficulty in learning it, right?

But if a Japanese person speaks English, they will never get any admiration for it, and often will get, actually evaluated negatively: oh yeah, but their English is not so good yet.

But if it’s the person who has learnt Japanese from an English background, they get all kinds of praise and support and self-affirmation out of it.

So that’s a form of oppression going both ways: privilege in one, and oppression in the other.

Lourdes Ortega, interviewed on the TEFLology podcast

This is something I’ve found annoying in the past: it’s lovely to be praised for my own language learning, but when I praise people back: your English is just as good as my Polish or better, they say “But Polish is so hard!”

It’s no harder than English for a Polish learner: all languages are easy and all are difficult. It’s a question of motivation, and while distances between them may help or hinder learning at different stages of the process, if you speak the same pair of languages, you should be equally proud of your ability to speak them, and you should be praised equally.

The things we say to language learners have a real impact!

6 thoughts on “Attitudes to language learning

  1. Interesting stuff! Matthew experienced this in Romania recently, with his colleagues apologising for their terrible (very good) English then praising him fulsomely for his TWO WORDS of Romanian … Maybe it’s our reputation for not speaking other languages, so someone who does is seen as amazing – I wonder if it happens to people who have other first languages.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Liz and Sandy, in Croatia some people (my impression is the majority actually but I don’t know of any research that would substantiate this) take the view that English is easier to learn than other languages. I assume – again, no research – that this is simply because their exposure to English is far greater than to any other language (in formal education, through the media and online) and as a result a lot of (younger) people are able to use it to a level that doesn’t hinder communication. So in that sense I think they do have it a bit easier than someone who’s had limited exposure to a language from a particular language family (say Slavic) and makes an effort to learn it as an adult.
        However, I’ve heard people say that English is easier because it doesn’t have case endings. Apparently, getting the case ending right makes Croatian far trickier to learn than getting your articles right in English. Maybe this belief persists because traditional language lessons place an emphasis on drilling endings, whereas English classes often include communicative activities in which teachers don’t zero in on every mistake and correct it on the spot, which then makes people think that accuracy matters less in English?
        I think we *would* praise speakers of languages other than English for making an effort to speak Croatian. If you hear us say they hardly ever get their case endings mixed up, that’s high praise indeed and we’re pretty impressed. 😀


        1. Thanks for the comment Vedrana. Those are all things I’ve heard said about Polish too 🙂
          Something else I’ve heard is that English is relatively easy at the beginning compared to many other languages, for example due to the lack of cases and verb inflections, but that it gets much harder at high levels due to the lexical complexity, and sound-spelling relationships.

          Liked by 1 person

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