Learning a new language in school is a common experience for Americans and Brits. We all walk around with the half-remembered knowledge of French or Spanish that we picked up in high school, even though many people don’t use it much in their day-to-day lives. But despite the existing language learning, the United States and the United Kingdom are pretty monolingual.
Why does it seem like mainland Europeans are better at languages than Americans and Brits? In this episode, content producer Thomas Moore Devlin, executive producer Jen Jordan and project manager Elin Asklöv dive into this question.
Multilinguish: Are Mainland Europeans Really Better At Languages?
First, Thomas, Jen and Elin discuss one of the most common reasons given for Europe’s language ability: geographic proximity. We talk to Babbel CEO Markus Witte about how travel remains one of the most popular reasons to learn a language today.
Next, we look at some of the structural reasons why certain countries are better at learning languages than others. To do so, we host a panel of three Babbel employees who have experience learning and teaching languages: Caroline Paboeuf, Jenny Dorman and Sophie Harwood. Together, we discuss how education, the prevalence of English, and the complexities of motivation combine to make for very different learning environments in various countries.
Finally, we wrap things up by talking about what could change to make the United States and the United Kingdom more proactive about their language learning. And also Peppa Pig gets mentioned.
This episode was produced by Thomas Moore Devlin and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Markus Witte, Caroline Paboeuf, Jenny Dorman and Sophie Harwood for taking the time to talk to us for this episode.
The Amazing Rise Of Bilingualism In The United States | Psychology Today
Most Europeans Can Speak Multiple Languages. UK And Ireland Not So Much | The Guardian
Most European Students Are Learning A Foreign Language In School While Americans Lag | Pew Research Center
Learning A Foreign Language A ‘Must’ In Europe, Not So In America | Pew Research Center
Here Are The Best And Worst States For Language Education | Babbel Magazine
Why Don’t Americans Know More Foreign Languages? | Babbel Magazine
Thomas Devlin: For the language app Babbel, I’m producer Thomas Devlin. Have you ever wondered why it seems like Europeans are better at learning languages? It’s not just in your head, 54% of mainland European speaking to the language, where only 22% of Americans do. On today’s episode, we explore how geography, education and perhaps most importantly of all motivations shaped the linguistic map of countries.
Thomas Devlin: Before we get started, make sure to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen and don’t forget to subscribe so you can get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
Thomas Devlin: To discuss today’s topics with me, I have my executive producer, Jen Jordan and project manager Elin Asklov. Thank you for coming today.
Jen Jordan: Thanks Thomas. So we are talking about language learning in the U.S. and U.K. and these monolingual countries areas. But we also have a European with us. We have Elin with us.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Elin Asklöv: Hi.
Jen Jordan: Why are we talking about this today, in this time of year?
Thomas Devlin: I think a lot about language learning and I think one of the most relatable experiences about Americans and language learning is language classes in the United States. I took Spanish from first grade to 11th grade, which is rare. I don’t think many people start in first grade.
Jen Jordan: That’s pretty unusual.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And it was more of a, let’s say Ola again, here it is. Here’s the basics over and over again. Also, one year I had a substitute teacher for the entire time and we just played seven up every class. But I also had some really great professors and teachers and also I took Spanish again in college. But my Spanish skills today are still lacking I’d say. I have a solid grasp and I can understand a lot, but I am not going to go to Spain, drop all English and flourish.
Jen Jordan: Interesting. That’s a long time to study a language and still feel like not, I mean maybe not super confident I guess in your fluency at that point.
Thomas Devlin: It is a very long time to study language. It’s almost frustrating. I’m embarrassed to tell people about it, but I’m not that embarrassed because when you tell other Americans about this experience of studying a language for a very long time, they can relate to it. Have you Jen taken language classes?
Jen Jordan: Yeah. I’m in a similar boat, although I started in seventh grade. It was the first time we really had an elective to study another language and at my high school or my middle school at that time it was French or Spanish. I grew up in Maine, a lot of Canadians, a lot of French Canadian speaking. I took French because I thought it would actually, laughing at myself, be more useful. But it actually turns out I love French and I love continuing to study it.
Jen Jordan: But that said, I took years of French through high school. A lot of what I understand as the stuff that really gets hammered into your head early on. Like when you’re still in those impressionable years and you’re capturing all of it and practicing it day after day, but picking up new stuff is still a real struggle. And then I took German in college and I also minored in Russian language. And Russian I’ve almost completely lost.
Jen Jordan: I decided not to study abroad for a bunch of reasons and I think that is really the point. Where you either really go into the full immersion or just like it was a thing you studied and unless you bring it back in some meaningful way, it’s really difficult to keep in your mind.
Thomas Devlin: So Elin, you did not learn a language in the United States schooling system.
Elin Asklöv: No, I did not.
Thomas Devlin: What was your experience of learning another language? And also where are you originally from?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. I’m from Sweden originally and we start at age eight learning English. And then age 12 we add another language, which usually is Spanish, German or French. And most people should choose Spanish these days. And then you can continue with that throughout high school as well. But a lot of people swap that for another extra math or something like that.
Jen Jordan: So is it mandatory to start learning English when you’re that young when you’re eight?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: Okay, cool.
Elin Asklöv: That’s something everyone does. And I think this is true for most Scandinavian countries. It might be age 10. It’s also true for Germany as far as I understand, Netherlands and probably a bunch of other.
Thomas Devlin: I have all the statistics on which countries require, which we’ll get to shortly.
Elin Asklöv: Great. Yeah.
Jen Jordan: That’s interesting even just from the very top level, because a lot of times it’s an elective. You don’t have to study another language in high school. And even if you go to a Liberal Arts College, language is an elective. Sometimes it’s mandatory, but it’s a soft mandatory. You could take music as your language in some cases. You can really skate by without ever taking another language here in the U.S..
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: So you learn English, is it mandatory when you’re in grade school?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: And then another language later on?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: Cool.
Thomas Devlin: When did you feel like you had a solid grasp of English and could use it? Was it like you had to go to someplace that speak English or were you prepared?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think when I was maybe a teenager and would go to an English speaking country, I felt that I could speak. But I think a lot of that is also tied to English being all around us in Scandinavia. Yeah.
Jen Jordan: You’ve mentioned watching American TV shows and a lot of the pop culture gets imported there.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. Exactly.
Jen Jordan: Or are you absorbing so much media? It’s not just a classroom thing, it’s you’re absorbing English all over the place?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, exactly. So it’s hard to say which part is which. Is it a really good education or is it the fact that we don’t dub movies for instance, and it’s just a lot of English everywhere.
Jen Jordan: Interesting.
Thomas Devlin: Interesting. First of all, I feel it’s important to point out that the statistics do support and English countries that tend to speak English as their major language do not speak other languages as well. As I mentioned at the top of the United States, only 22% of people are bilingual and 98.6% of the population to speak English as one of those languages. So it’s not that there are some small communities making up any amount of that. And I was actually surprised that the United Kingdom, they’re ahead of us with 39% bilingual but not that far. Especially because in European countries on average, 54% speak a second language. So over half.
Jen Jordan: It’s interesting because I always assumed just because of geography, the U.K. would be better at languages, but every British person I’ve met is wildly embarrassed by how monolingual it is over there.
Thomas Devlin: It was my assumption as well. It’s just like you’ve just got to skip across. You can swim the channel and then you’re in France.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: That’s actually part of the reason why when I went into this question, I think the first thought that I had, is to explain the United States and the monolingual culture, is that geographically we’re just further away from other languages. You have French Canadians. I don’t think I’ve ever met a French Canadian.
Jen Jordan: Really?
Thomas Devlin: At least not regularly.
Jen Jordan: I don’t think you would know in both if you had, because they’re pretty Americanized for the most part.
Thomas Devlin: That’s good to know.
Jen Jordan: If you go to Quebec, then you’d be able to actually speak French. But even Montreal.
Thomas Devlin: I have been to Quebec, I’m lying. But my main point is that I don’t think that the French Canadians are creating this massive French culture in the United States. The Southern border more so because we would have a lot of Spanish that goes on a lot. But that’s pretty much it. And that is why Spanish tends to be the majority of foreign language education.
Jen Jordan: Yeah, I would say there is more Spanish communities that have captured their culture here in the U.S. versus French communities coming into the U.S. and creating a lot of cultures except for places like in the North East. I think in Maine, we had people who actually spoke French at home, but that became more rare as I grew up.
Thomas Devlin: I do think it’s important to point out that we are making generalizations about massive countries and there are definitely parts of the United States where there is flourishing language and multilingualism. But overall, the numbers do not support a massively multilingual country.
Jen Jordan: Very important to have that disclaimer.
Thomas Devlin: Yes. Because I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone’s individual experience, but overall. So you go to my first reason behind why I thought that Europeans, especially mainland Europeans would be better at languages. It’s because they’re just closer. And we actually talked to the CEO of Babbel, Markus Witte, about it, and he talked a little bit about this phenomenon.
Markus Witte: Europe might be a little ahead in language learning methodologies and the way we take it more seriously. Europe is a multilingual continent, way more than North America. Yes, there’s French and Spanish speakers in North America, but we’re much more confronted with people of different languages in Europe. We have a different approach towards thinking our language from the very start. Especially since we are not native English speakers, we all know without English, there is no career, there’s no traveling and so on.
Markus Witte: I think that’s a big difference and Europe is in a way also more multicultural. So there’s quite an interest of Jen’s travel to Italy. Which might be comparable to the interest of people from Maine traveling to Florida. But you need a different language.
Jen Jordan: When it sounds like he’s getting at, is that you’re actually confronted with more languages and people from different cultures who speak those languages than you are here in the U.S.. Is that essentially what he’s getting at?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, absolutely. This is probably a very huge reason. Geography is going to be a huge part of it. There are countries that just are multilingual in their very nature. I don’t want to say the wrong country. Switzerland. Switzerland for example, that’s just baked in, it’s multilingual. You are not going to know one language there. So I don’t want to understate just the importance of like the United States is on the other side, they only have really interactions with a couple other countries regularly and that is going to be a huge discouragement in general for learning.
Jen Jordan: Don’t you think in general though when you’re living in a place, even in New York or Berlin, or somewhere that’s a really global place. Even just having that familiarity of hearing different types of languages that has an impact on your motivation to learn?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Jen Jordan: Elin, you’ve lived in several different places at this point. It sounds like something, is that the first reason? You have four reasons, right?
Thomas Devlin: Yes. I have four reasons overall, and this was a reason one. And I think in many ways if we just chalk it up to that, you could. But I also think that England, despite being a little bit separated shows that there must be some deeper phenomenon. You can’t just say, “Oh well the only reason Americans would ever want to learn another language is for travel.” And then as soon as you take that motivation away, then there’s no reason.
Thomas Devlin: There’s got to be a larger phenomenon. And I decided that the next step, going back to our school conversation is that education is very key to what designs the way we talk. I want us to look at the statistics about not just overall bilingualism, but students in particular. And I found that only 20% of students in the United States are learning a second language.
Jen Jordan: 20%?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Jen Jordan: Wow. So one out of five American students is learning another language?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: But that’s it.
Thomas Devlin: I found that shocking. That takes it from overall, so that might count. If you only have to take it for a few years, that will lower it because then you’re not at the age yet. But that’s still a shockingly low number. And even New Jersey, which is the capital of language learning in the United States technically—
Jen Jordan: What up, New Jersey?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. New Jersey is still only about 50% of the students are learning, which is low.
Jen Jordan: In some cases, not to get political, but funding cuts. Usually language and the arts are the first things that go because they’re seen as not the core topics that students are tested on. Unfortunately that is a reality of bias. Some of these programs are cut, but that’s still pretty low.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, it definitely shows a priority. It’s just not a priority here. And that goes again to the motivations that we’re talking about, but still. And that number is especially low when you compare it to the average by country in Europe, which is 92% of students studying a language.
Jen Jordan: In Europe?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Jen Jordan: Wow.
Thomas Devlin: Which that does not count the U.K., Ireland or … Macedonia was also not in this particular data set, but-
Jen Jordan: All right.
Thomas Devlin: That’s still representative and that’s huge. And so I decided for this that I wanted to talk to people who actually had teaching experiences and who work at Babbel. And fortunately I found three people who have that expertise.
Jenny Dorman: I’m Jenny Dorman. I am instructional designer here at Babbel in Berlin.
Caroline Paboeuf: I’m Caroline Paboeuf. I work as a French editor in didactics. I’m producing learning contents for Babbel.
Sophie Harwood: My name’s Sophie Harwood. I’m a project manager for business, English and other languages in the didactics department here at Babbel.
Thomas Devlin: The first thing that I wanted to ask these three was just about teaching in general. They come from the United States, England and France respectively. They had a wide range of opinions about how language is taught.
Jenny Dorman: I can say from having taught English in public schools and private schools in Germany, that one key difference is that they start much younger than the typical American. When I started learning French in high school, I was in ninth grade already. I was already a teenager and I had kind of missed maybe a little bit of that window of awesome brain plasticity, when people are kids are more receptive to learning languages.
Jenny Dorman: I had students already in the first class here in Germany that were taking English lessons every day and English was a required subject. It was taught in a very playful manner in the early grades. And actually in most of most public schools in Germany, the students actually have to take English just to graduate from high school and there’s an exit exam, so to speak. There’s a lot more emphasis put on it.
Sophie Harwood: Yeah, I’m actually quite impressed with how much compulsory language there is in the U.S. System compared to the U.K. system because it’s not mandatory at any level either at high school or at university level. I’d actually say there’s even a bit of a disparity in terms of, it tends to be the schools in the wealthier areas or the private schools that have language teaching facilities. And it’s not always even available in a lot of public schools.
Thomas Devlin: That was Jenny Dorman and Sophia Harwood, who both have teaching experiences and they have a lot of interesting points. The requirements are something that I wanted to look into specifically because I thought, for example, the United States had a requirement for language learning, but it does not have one that covers much at all.
Jen Jordan: It’s state by state, no?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. It’s definitely the state’s decision. There’s core curriculum and there’s lots of curriculum stuff. It’s a very complex topic, but in general it’s not the strongest requirement. And the United Kingdom, which she said does not have a requirement. Actually England does. Not Scotland, because it’s part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom in general does not have a language requirement, but England specifically does.
Thomas Devlin: Northern Ireland also does. On the other side of that though, the United Kingdom is the one that starts language learning the latest. They don’t start mandatory language learning until the age of 11 which is much later than others. Because Elin, you said you started at-
Elin Asklöv: Eight I think. Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. That could go to this idea of once you miss a certain window of learning, it’s going to become a harder. And also in Europe, over 20 countries including France, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. Those are three important countries because those are three that have 100% language learning overall, but they require a second foreign language. And some of them require that second language learning to start before England has started its very first.
Elin Asklöv: Right.
Jen Jordan: Are they requiring English or are they requiring just any second language?
Thomas Devlin: It varies country by country.
Jen Jordan: Okay.
Thomas Devlin: Usually the first foreign language will be English and then they’ll throw in a French or a German. Do you have any thoughts on your experience in Sweden?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah, no, exactly. English is mandatory and it comes first in Sweden and then you can choose from a bunch of them. But most schools just to have Spanish, French and German. But then it’s also related to the relationships between countries I guess. Also like in Finland you Swedish as the next language after English because that has the status of the minority language there. And then I guess in parts of Germany or Italy you would learn French if it’s close by. I think all of those things are also, yeah, important when choosing what language to teach and to learn.
Jen Jordan: Makes sense.
Thomas Devlin: This actually brings me to my third point, which we’ll get to right after this break. Multilanguage is brought to you by Babbel, the language app!
Thomas Devlin: It’s time for another language learning lightning round. Now I want you to share your best tip for staying motivated to learn a language. Jen.
Jen Jordan: My tip is probably the most difficult, but planning a trip always gives me the best motivation. It’s not doable. Sometimes I will plan something even though I don’t actually book a hotel or an Airbnb. Yeah. I just study thinking, “Okay, I want to pin a trip somewhere, I have to learn a certain amount of the language to justify spending the money to make it happen.” But then that gives it to me a timeline and I have to get a certain amount prepared. Also going alone, sometimes it puts more of a burden on you to have to know how to get around. When I went to Paris this summer on my own, I felt a lot more pressure to study the language and I actually got a lot more done this time.
Thomas Devlin: David.
David Doochin: I think the best thing that I do to stay motivated is to make or discover a playlist. I think music is so important to me in just serving as the soundtrack to my life, giving me inspiration when I’m working out, when I’m on the commute to work, whatever. It helps me get in the zone. If I’m excited about a new foreign language playlist I’ve made, there are a few other things that are going to get me as pumped to engage with the foreign language.
Thomas Devlin: And Dylan.
Dylan Lyons: I know I bring up dating a lot on this podcast, but I find it really motivating when you connect with someone on a dating app and they speak another language, to try to learn the language so that you can speak to them in that language. A lot of times I’ll match with someone who’s a Spanish speaker and I’ll practice my Spanish on Tinder or whatever the app is in the chat with them. If I don’t speak the language and they’re really great, then that’s all the more motivation to take on that language.
Thomas Devlin: Thanks for your tips, y’all. That will keep you motivated with convenient lessons to take only 10 to 15 minutes to complete. And also designed to get you quickly speaking your new language within weeks. So you’re ready for whichever trip you have lined out. We’re offering Multilanguage listeners 50% off a three months subscription, and new customers can get this offer by visiting Babbel.com/podcast. That’s B A B B E L.com/podcast.
Thomas Devlin: And we’re back! Before the break we talked about how geographic distance and also a lack of education have caused the United States and the United Kingdom to have less multilingualism. But now we’re going to talk about a reason that I think gives those countries a little bit more credit. I had this conversation with Sophie Harwood and Caroline Paboeuf talking about language choice and how the language you choose is not always as simple as you’d think.
Sophie Harwood: I think something as well when you said in the U.S., are people learning Spanish or French. And it made me think in the U.K., I think also one of our problems is we can’t always decide which language we’re going to be learning. Is it German? Is it French? Is it Spanish? Is it Chinese? Is it something depending on what teacher you actually have in your school and so on?
Sophie Harwood: Perhaps something that can help in continental Europe is, I believe English is pretty much always the first, second language learned so to speak. That’s not just because they imagine going to the U.K. Or the U.S. It’s because it’s basically the international language of a lot of business and education and universities and so on. I think sometimes as native English speakers, we’d beat ourselves up a little bit that we think everyone’s learned English for us and for our sake and because we don’t speak other languages.
Sophie Harwood: But for example, just here at Babbel, you can walk into a meeting room and there’s someone from Peru, someone from the Netherlands, someone from Sweden, they’re speaking English and there’s no native English speaker there. It’s because it’s an international language and people are learning English a little bit like a Caroline said, because you then speak English with German people even though you’re French.
Caroline Paboeuf: Yeah, exactly. For sure. You don’t think twice if you have to learn a foreign language when you’re French or German or Italian or whatever. You would learn most probably English because wherever you’re going to travel, you’re going to be likely to use English to communicate.
Jen Jordan: This does make me feel better that not everyone is just learning English because they feel bad for the poor Americans and Brits who just can’t bring themselves to learn another language because our education system doesn’t prioritize it. I do feel slightly better after listening to them talk about us that way.
Thomas Devlin: Definitely made me feel better because I do feel like I have run into this problem where for example, when I’m using Babbel, I’m trying to choose should I be using Spanish because it’s in the United States? Probably the best foreign language you can do for the most likelihood of using it. Or should I be using German because I’m going to go visit Germany soon and then I start one and then I’m like, “Actually, I need Dutch for this reason.”
Jen Jordan: The multilingual thing does remind me too, and Elin, I don’t know if you have anything to add to this, but the couples who are bilingual or multilingual and neither of them have English as their native language, but they speak English at home because they both speak English. Even if they’re a native German and native Swedish speaker or whatever.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. That’s really common.
Jen Jordan: That’s what that reminds me of, and that actually, it’s the lingua franca of their relationship.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I don’t want to pass a judgment about like this being a good thing. Because having English as a lingua franca … It established the lingua franca because of history of just kind of forcing English, both the United States and the United Kingdom to colonialism and government strong holding after wars. But it is just a fascinating phenomenon that I know about, but I just did not think how it affects individual decisions as much. If you are a German and you want to go to Spain, you could learn Spanish. But if you also want to visit France later, it makes more sense to learn English.
Thomas Devlin: My fourth reason, which this brings me to, is that motivation to learn a language is complex. It’s individual people who are making these decisions. Education is going to decide someone, but I think especially in the United States for example, it’s always going to come down to someone’s personal motivation and that is going to make it more complex. I asked Caroline, Sophie and Jenny to all tell me about why they learned. And I think that was really revealing.
Sophie Harwood: I learned German for love so I could speak to my husband’s family. And I learned French because I moved to Paris and I just wanted to live in Paris because it looked beautiful. Once I was there, it only seemed polite to learn the language and it was quite useful then to find a job afterwards. So partly to have the opportunity to live and work somewhere different and fully integrate into the society and the work culture there. And then partly for love.
Thomas Devlin: I feel like learning to be polite is the most British reason for adding a new language.
Sophie Harwood: Yeah. But I think politeness from a British standpoint does come a lot into it, partly for why we do learn languages. And also conversely for why sometimes we don’t learn languages very well is we don’t want to seem rude if we get it wrong. And also, if you speak English a lot of the time, if you try and speak another language to someone, for example, here in Germany, even sometimes if I try and speak German, often people reply to me in English and then I want to continue speaking in English because I don’t want to seem rude as if, “Your English is too bad for me to reply to continue speaking in German.” I’ll then speak to them in English so that it’s not awkward, and I think maybe it’s a battle of the politenesses as to who’s trying to speak each other’s language.
Caroline Paboeuf: Yeah. I also learn Russian for love, so I guess it’s a big motivation. My ex was Russian. I also learn Italian for traveling which is very useful and vacation is a good motivation. For sure motivation plays a big role. Also German I learned because I live here in Berlin and I needed, but I don’t speak it that well after four years because people speak English pretty well. When I try to get deeper into a conversation, it’s usually easier to switch to English.
Jenny Dorman: I had an interesting experience learning German here in Germany. I moved to Germany nine years ago. I’m from Windsor Locks, Connecticut, so Northern Connecticut. And I actually didn’t move to Berlin, which would’ve been a disadvantage for learning German because so many people here do speak English. But I actually moved to a small city south of Munich, almost into Austria where no one spoke English.
Jenny Dorman: If I wanted to work and make friends and get involved in different activities, I really had to learn German. I really had no choice. Although now I have a pretty awesome Bavarian accent I’m told when I speak German and I’ve been trying to work on that a little bit and when I speak Hochdeutsch. But yeah, there’s definitely motivation factors.
Thomas Devlin: I think I was surprised by more than one person saying love for learning a language.
Elin Asklöv: I think they will happen if you live in— So all of these people live in Berlin, which is very multicultural I guess. Or people are coming from all over Europe but also other places. And the same goes for New York I suppose. But in Berlin, if you don’t meet someone who is from Italy, then you might want to learn. Maybe not for them because as you said Jen, you might speak English as your partner language. But for family and visiting their home.
Jen Jordan: You definitely hear that here in the U.S.. It’s usually Spanish. You have less language pairings unless you’re in a major city like New York or LA. But I think it’s usually a lot of English, Spanish. But yeah, we do that a lot from a coworker. You want to learn a language to connect with your significant other’s family?
Elin Asklöv: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: I think here in the U.S., A lot of it’s travel, but for me a lot of it is also just aspirational. Aspirational Jen speaks French and knows Russian and is very multicultural. But that’s hard sometimes to translate it to the day to day. Like, “Hey, I’m on the train today, time for your French lesson.” If I’m really tired or have a lot of other work emails to do, it doesn’t always happen. And motivation definitely messy, but my aspirational best self studies French every day.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I think aspiration is definitely one of the harder motivations. It sounds the nicest, but it’s just, I’m only accountable to myself when I decide that I’m doing something aspirationally and I’m not very good at telling myself to do anything. “I don’t need to listen to me. Who do I think I am?”
Jen Jordan: I feel like you’re so disciplined. Are you kidding? Really fooled me.
Thomas Devlin: It’s all a presentation and you’ll never know.
Thomas Devlin: We’ve covered my main four reasons, which just to quickly review, the first one is the geography or we just are not as close, which is a big part of it. We’re not as close to other languages. We’re not going to have as many opportunities to even run into them that not even bother learning them. Education is huge. The fact that English is the lingua franca is huge also, and that of course is pretty confined to what we’re talking about today, which is U.K., U.S. And mainland Europe because there are other parts of the world as well. We’re not talking about them right now because there’s just too many factors if you do that. And then lastly that motivation can vary so much and I think we tried to think of solutions to this. I think personally education is probably the way that if we really pushed for it, that would be the best driver. But I don’t think we’re going to influence language policy quite yet. I think putting pressure on motivations is the biggest thing that we can do. I talked a little bit about that with Sophie Harwood and Jenny Dorman.
Jenny Dorman: There’s really a lot of research that looks at how someone’s emotional connection to learning, not just learning language. It’s just learning in general makes a really big difference in how well they learn and what their tenacity will be to continue learning and follow through and apply with their learning.
Jenny Dorman: And I think when you associate your early experiences with learning a language with fun, with games, or even maybe with fun motivations such as, “I love this song or I really want to watch this series,” and you can see it in that native language and you have that drive. There’s been a lot of data over the last few years about European countries and how well their citizens tend to learn English and how well their citizens speak English with or without an accent.
Jenny Dorman: And the countries that tend to speak English as a second language, almost as close to no accent or no perceivable accent are countries that don’t dub their movies in that native language. For instance, the Netherlands. When they import Hollywood films or films from Britain, they don’t dub it and they’re watching it in the native language. They have just so much more exposure, even if they don’t have a speaking partner, they have just have a lot more exposure.
Jenny Dorman: But countries like France or Spain, or even Italy, they tend to either dub, or use subtitles. There’s been some really good correlations to whether or not the media is dubbed, versus whether or not the media is subtitled. And that seems to make a difference.
Sophie Harwood: Again, for children as well, my neighbor’s kid is three, and he watches Peppa Pig exclusively in English. And his vocabulary for Peppa Pig related vocabulary is excellent. He’s not learning English anywhere else or anything like that. But if I say, “Who is mummy pig?” or “Who is daddy pig?” He can point to it. He can explain, “This is baby pig,” or “I don’t know all the Peppa Pig characters,” but also just that exposure and what kids can pick up if it’s fun and if it’s colorful. And to be honest, if it’s on an iPad, it’s a great way for learning as well.
Thomas Devlin: There’s a lot there, especially a lot of Peppa Pig once I just keep thinking about, but I think the main point there is that motivation. Sometimes we think about it as entirely like internally imposed, which I think is not entirely correct. I think the fact that our society always focuses on English. Let me take a different tact.
Thomas Devlin: I think there’s a narrative out there right now that English is the lingua franca. It’s going to continue being in lingua franca. Why would you ever do anything in a different language because it’s just going to be English? But I don’t necessarily believe that either is correct or has to be correct. I think we have seen some shifts in more multilingual content in the United States.
Thomas Devlin: Netflix has done great work in having things in other languages from different creators and sometimes they’ll automatically dub the shows. But honestly, why would you ever watch a show that’s been tabbed? It’s awful. Their mouths don’t match. Sometimes the emotions don’t match and you’re just watching it being like, “What’s happening?”
Jen Jordan: A favorite Thomas tangent, we won’t go into right now. Subs v. Dubs.
Thomas Devlin: You can look up the video. But I think if we thought about the future more as it’s not English is the future and that’s going to be it, but if it were more “Everything is the future.”
Jen Jordan: The way I think about it is when you think of these four reasons, eventually education policy can change, but it won’t change overnight.Geography is something that we can’t change obviously, but we do have technology now and because we have technology and all of this amazing content like you mentioned Netflix and all of these other series that are coming that are from different creators created in native, different languages. It makes the foreign language a little bit less foreign and I think it confronts more Americans who wouldn’t necessarily, who might be from the middle of America and maybe aren’t confronted with these other languages.
Jen Jordan: It’s actually bringing these languages to more awareness and it makes them feel maybe a little bit less scary or less foreign to some people. Motivation is continually changing. Like you said, it’s messy, it’s nuanced. Sometimes it comes from within. Sometimes it’s imposed by other factors in our lives, but that’s something that we have a lot of control over, I think that’s interesting. I tend to focus on the education part of it, but there’s a lot of other levers out there and I think that can make a big difference in terms of language learning.
Thomas Devlin: Here’s my utopia, Thomas Moore Devlin’s utopia. I would like everyone to know at least a little bit of a bunch of other languages. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think for example, I have taken Spanish as I’ve mentioned many times in this very episode. And I think just the fact that I know that I can read some Spanish and interact with them in a way. That in itself, even though I’m not necessarily a master speaker and it helps me connect with this other culture and it’s so much better than not knowing any Spanish.
Thomas Devlin: I think if we just built a society where … Hopefully lots of people should be learning other languages, but at the very least people just have a better grasp of other languages in general. And that seems like an impossible task perhaps now because the idea of learning one language always seems like an insurmountable task. But I don’t think it’s that hard. I think if we just knew the basics of a bunch of different languages, it would completely shift our attitudes and we just start to see other languages as … What’s the opposite of insurmountable? Surmountable?
Jen Jordan: Achievable?
Thomas Devlin: Mountable.
Jen Jordan: I think we are getting at is language learning, any type of learning is a journey. You don’t just check a box that you … I don’t know when you could ever check a box and just knowing something. Elin, you speak amazing English. You speak better English than I do, but would you say you’ve checked the on English? I’m always learning more English and it’s my native language.
Elin Asklöv: Yeah. I’m always learning more English, especially being here and living here. But also I have to say being here and being exposed to a lot of other languages than English, especially Spanish of seeing Spanish everywhere, like in the subway. That has really gotten me psyched about taking off my Spanish again. Which has been suffering since I learned German. As you say, there are little motivations everywhere and if you can just embrace them, I think you are going to just feel joy about learning a new language.
Jen Jordan: I feel like we’ve given a lot of reasons to learn languages.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Thanks so much for joining me, Jen and Elin.
Elin Asklöv: Thank you.
Jen Jordan: Thanks Thomas.
Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are-
Thomas Devlin: Thomas Moore Devlin.
David Doochin: David Doochin.
Steph Koyfman: Steph Koyfman.
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Jen Jordan: I know you and your travels better than you do.
Thomas Devlin: As soon as I turn the recording button on, it’s like my personality doesn’t exist outside of this space. It’s recording Thomas now. I don’t know the other one.