Back of the pack, are we lazy language learners?

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For many, learning another language can be a daunting experience. There are many obstacles in the way, rewiring your brain to think in another tongue, dedicating time to trawling relentlessly through grammar text books and plucking up the courage to express yourself in front of someone else, someone foreign. Nevertheless, it is clear to see that the advantages of picking up another language definitely outweigh those pesky obstacles. You increase your cognitive ability (including memory), you broaden your cultural horizons and you increase your employability. So why doesn’t everyone choose the option of learning another foreign language?

According to recent findings in the journal Cognition, in order to acquire another language fluently there is a cut-off point. According to the research, it is easier for children to learn languages, this then becomes more and more difficult as we age. However, it is suggested that late learners can still attain a degree of proficiency.

The findings, which were taken from an online grammar test involving 670,000 people from all around the world and of different age-groups, discovered a “critical period” up until the late teens where the brain is most receptive. The research of Noam Chomsky the celebrated linguistics professor supports these findings through his theory of LAD or ‘language acquisition device’. Does this explain why adults in the U.K and those who have passed their optimal stage for acquiring languages are not striving to challenge themselves to acquire another language, when many studies, polls and research papers show the benefits and possibilities that this endeavour has to offer?

Marc-Olivier Loiseau, professor at the School of Modern Foreign Languages at Ulster University gave his views and experiences with regards to the situation, and his experiences with learning English:



Professor Loiseau, who has learned languages in France from an early age, stresses the importance of the cognitive advantages that language learning has to offer, especially at an early age. According to the professor, “when you are a multilingual, your brain is able to produce more ideas”. It is easy to look at the world through a native linguistic lens, and so it is easy to forget that there is a whole other world of content in other languages, something the professor was all too eager to point out. “It’s a perk if you like literature”, he explained in reference to having the ability to read in other languages. Marc, who is currently pursuing a PhD at the Jordanstown campus, went on to explain his view, as an outsider, on the current state of the English language: “If you want to have a life in the Western Hemisphere, you have to know English” he remarked solemnly.

However, with the threat of Brexit looming over the U.K (a country historically lazy with regards to language acquisition) it appears that, in the future, English may not “double your world” as professor Loiseau suggested. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker has previously expressed that English was “losing its importance in Europe”, and seeing as only one percent of the EU population will natively speak English post-Brexit – Ireland and Malta. This threatens the common assumption by native English speakers that “one doesn’t need to learn another language – everyone speaks English nowadays”.

This attitude is evident in damning statistics by website Eurostat who found in a study that only five percent of those age 16 study two or more languages in the U.K as opposed to the EU average of 59 %. These statistics pale in comparison to how much the British economy is claimed to lose each year because of its unwillingness to engage in the learning of foreign languages. A report from the BBC stated that findings from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on modern languages show the U.K is currently losing out on a potential £50bn each year because of its substandard skills in language. Perhaps one thing people can agree on about Brexit is that it may bring the wake-up call the U.K needs to kick back into gear and start getting serious about learning foreign languages.

A group of students at the Faculty of Modern Foreign Languages who are carrying the linguistic flag for the U.K were interviewed on the topic of language acquisition, and what they felt were the most rewarding things achieved through deciding to learn another language:

Rian Magee, who is studying French in his final year also added, “They’ve put me out of my comfort zone and developed me as a person”.

One response that seemed consistent, was that Languages, as well as developing your mind, develop your emotional skills as well.

“I’ve really developed my confidence” explained Lucia Mulholland a final year languages student.


It appears, acquiring another language also comes with the perk of increasing your attractiveness to employers, and increases your employability. According to a Study on Foreign Proficiency and Employability published in 2015, up to 50 % of employers consider foreign language proficiency “very important”, with only a meagre 1% finding it unimportant. The idea of language acquisition being a major boost to employability was also reiterated in the interviews with language students Rian and Lucia. Rian revealed that “without my language I wouldn’t have been able to do that”, in reference to his successful application to be a language assistant with the British Council. This was compounded by the claim by Lucia, who has aspirations to be a translator after university, that, “businesses are looking for people who can speak languages, to be able to maintain their links with Europe”.

Aside from Professor Loiseau who has a very proficient level of the English language, as well as some of the fellow French language students interviewed, it’s important to note that even a little knowledge of another language goes a long way – it shows emotional intelligence and cultural awareness, and even the simple use of ačiū (thanks) on the streets of Vilnius can bring a big broad smile to a kiosk clerk’s face.

James Hemphill, a local language student in the final year of his bachelor degree at Ulster University, offered his linguistic experiences whilst travelling Europe during Erasmus.

Whilst living in France and Spain for a yearlong period, James can testify all too well to the perks of learning (even if in just a small amount) the native language. During his travels through Germany, Czech Republic and Holland, James took some time to learn a few phrases in advance. He claims that even this small gesture meant a great deal. “It helped to endear me, they appreciate learning a little bit about their language and their culture”. He went on to recount a story he had about such a small gesture in a restaurant in Germany when he requested a slice of bread. ‘It was quite comical and funny for the waiter at the restaurant”. James’s account is first hand proof of the unifying effect languages have. Unlike many, James understood that people are proud of their own culture, it gave them all they have. And with any sign that someone shows interest or knowledge in that culture, there is a great unifying feeling, it brings people together, and perhaps feeds their ego or self-confidence.

The importance of languages is underplayed and understated in the U.K. It is understandable to an extent that this is the case. English has become the worldwide lingua franca, which is ironic because the phrase is actually Latin. However, when you learn a language, you don’t just learn nouns, verbs and grammar. You learn about history. You learn about life, thousands of years of it, and you learn about other ways of life which may suit you even better than the one you’re currently living.

The U.K has an innate historical desire to be solitary, it’s an island nation after all. However, it has an obligation in this case to be open, to be enthusiastic and to be conscientious. Cutting language courses like that at Ulster University will have a detrimental fact on the people and the economy, the research shows this. The U.K faces two paths in relation to their attitude with languages, either endeavour to become more engaged and reap the economic, emotional and environmental rewards, or continue on the same rickety road, and risk lagging even further behind the pack. When the Normans came, we learnt their language, we integrated. If we could back then, we can now.














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