Becoming at least somewhat fluent in the local language where you live is such a huge issue that we’ve been discussing it a lot here lately. It would be hard to argue that one’s chances of feeling welcome and happy in a new country are closely tied to their ability to speak to the locals, and in many parts of the world that means learning their tongue rather than relying on enough of them to speak English.
Recently I’ve been discussing tools like language-learning podcasts and the BBC Language section on their website, but I’ve also been studying what makes some people successful at learning a new language and what stands in the way for the rest of us. Thinking about the hundreds of people I’ve known and met in the past 10 or 20 years while traveling in other countries, it seems clear that those who have been successful have had a clear and important motivation. Nearly all who’ve struggled have not.
There are some people with a gift
Just to get it out of the way, I think we have all met one or two people who know 6 or 8 languages and are in the process of learning 1 or 2 more. Those people seem to be fortunate in that they have a strong aptitude for learning languages and a desire to keep going. But for the vast majority of us, learning even one new language is very challenging.
It’s all about your motivation
We’ve all heard friends, family, and even ourselves declare that we’d “like to learn a new language” at some point, but most of us fall far short of our goal. Consider the following scenarios and see if you agree who has the best chances of success.
- I am going to Italy for two weeks this summer and it would be fun to learn the language.
- I love French films and music and it would be great to be able to understand exactly what everyone is saying.
- My company is moving me to Hong Kong and I think if I learn Cantonese I’ll be able to speak to more locals and fit in better.
- My grandparents are from Sweden and it would be cool to know the language and maybe find some relatives there.
- I can get a job that pays double my current salary if I learn Spanish.
I’ve heard these sorts of reasons from many people, and I think you’d agree that it’s the last one on the list who is most likely to be successful. Rather than just focus on the “money” part, lets think about it as economic freedom and a better lifestyle for you and your family. This appears to be the single driving force that gets people motivated enough to learn a new language, and without it the odds are against you.
Testing this theory around the world
Coming to the above conclusion is from traveling around the world a few times over the past couple of decades. Specifically, there have been some surprises when it comes to which countries have a lot of English speakers and which do not. You might assume, as I once did, that people who speak languages similar to English would be the most likely to learn English, but that seems to have nothing to do with it. In fact, for unrelated reasons, it seems to be those who speak the most dissimilar languages that actually learn the most English.
Simply put, if you are born in, say, Vietnam or Egypt or the Czech Republic or Tahiti, you have the potential to earn much more money if you can speak English (or French in some cases) than if you can’t, and if you become conversationally fluent you can earn a huge wage compared to those who don’t learn at all. In some cases it’s as a street merchant, but it could also be at a restaurant or bar or hotel or as a tour guide or even working for a foreign national company in their office. If you can speak English then the sky is the limit, so millions of people do it.
On the other hand, in the non-resort areas of Mexico and most of the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the benefits are less clear so only a small number really learn English. Particularly in Spain itself, most workers in most companies only need to speak Castillian (Spanish) and they can earn large salaries if they follow an otherwise lucrative career path. Even though it’s relatively easy for a Spanish-speaker to learn English, very few of them do it because it’s not the single best way to improve your economic condition.
How do we benefit from knowing this?
To be honest, coming to the above conclusion is a bit depressing because I’m certainly one of those people who’d “like” to learn another language, but I have very little economic motivation to do so. There’s nothing I can see in my future where learning another language improves my finances, at least beyond helping me get the “local price” a bit more often at the Friday Market.
Perhaps the best thing that can come of this is to realize that in order to successfully learn another language we can’t just “want to” but we actually have to come up with concrete benefits for doing it and then setting incremental goals along the way. Some people are able to get over that hump without a financial motivation, and those of us who really focus on it are the most likely to join them.