Anyone who decides to learn a language can do it. It doesn’t take special skills–99% perspiration, to paraphrase Thomas Edison. Deciding to learn a language and staying with it are entirely different, because motivation does not always come easily.
What about people who don’t want to learn languages? I know such people exist, as I see them at my work and in my house. What could motivate them? Is it self-centered even to try to motivate them to do something we love, that makes us polyglots better people, if they don’t love it?
A blog post about why people don’t learn languages inspired me. In this post, an anonymous commenter replied to this post, “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness.” The commenter was defending monolinguals, objecting specifically to characterizing monolinguals as lazy Americans. Some people just don’t want to learn languages, and that’s ok. I agree that polyglots can be smug, but I think we need to offer more ways for monolinguals to become polyglots.
Here are the main points the commenter made about monolinguals. I have re-ordered them to make a larger point.
- There is no necessity or interest to learn a language for many people;
- Polyglots shame monolinguals;
- Monolinguals (mistakenly) believe one needs talent to learn languages (one actually just needs dedication);
- Monolinguals come from many nations; it is not an American phenomenon;
- People in other countries often don’t allow you to practice a language besides English;
- Countries with lower population density are more monolingual.
I believe that it’s worth addressing all these points.
First, I also agree that many people perceive no need or interest in learning languages. They are not motivated to learn. For example, they see that they can live and do their job without a second language. I believe that they can be motivated, nevertheless. I don’t mean to persuade them against their will. Love and curiosity of others can motivate those who do not see an economic or other “practical” need.
Second, polyglots can end up shaming monolinguals. We polyglots compete with others and ourselves over how many languages we speak. This can turn into “smack” talk sometimes, which is ok in the right context. Outside of the polyglot community, though, smack talk won’t motivate people who don’t perceive a need or interest. It is more inspiring to speak about our language-love as an expression of love and curiosity for others.
Third, monolinguals should know that talent is not a deciding factor in learning languages–dedication is. I listened to an episode of the Actual Fluency Podcast this morning, and the guest described how you can speak a language when you know about 1000 words, and then you’ll get to the next level at about 10,000 words. Compared to this time-consuming task of memorizing words, the grammar is pretty simple. Memorizing through repetition is the key to learning a language. Just memorize! Every brain is set up to memorize whatever details it is motivated to learn–dedication is the sine qua non to learn the most important parts of language.
Fourth, monolinguality can happen in a lot of places, but it’s not evenly distributed. My experience tells me that residents of certain places gravitate towards monolinguality. For example, the majority of French and Russians I’ve met are monolingual. In many places, however, monolinguality is rare. I have not met a monolingual Dutch or Ukrainian person, for example. I’ve met tons of multilingual Americans, too, especially since we enjoy so many immigrants. (I discussed this phenomenon in this post.) Societies seem to tend naturally towards multilingual or monolingual.
Fifth, I’ve personally confronted the difficulty in getting native speakers to allow a native English speaker to practice their language. This happened to me most often in naturally multilingual countries, namely, Morocco, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even Germany. I loved Syria because everyone responded in Arabic, unlike Lebanon and Morocco. To be honest, I had to draw a lot of motivation out to confront this challenge; I had to be determined to learn their language. I had to explain my desire to practice, work out a deal where we would take turns, or find other people to talk to. One can feel ashamed to speak a language badly to someone who speaks your language well, but I have to stick to my motivation.
Sixth, I’m not sure if multilinguality and population density relate proportionally. On the one hand, densely populated countries like India and Singapore show natural multilinguality. On the other hand, the pre-European Americas show evidence of multilinguality. (See this post and this post about multilinguality in early colonial North America.) I could see, however, that even in monolingual societies big cities draw immigrants, who will tend to be multilingual. So even though England and France, for example, tend to be monolingual, London and Paris have for a long time enjoyed many multilingual people. New York City and Los Angeles show the same tendency.
After looking at all of these, I see even more clearly that motivation decides whether you learn a language or not. You dedicate yourself to what you’re motivated to do. The question is then how to get motivated. Motivation can begin from outside or from inside. External motivation, such as multilingual people in your society or economic needs, can prompt you to learn a language. Internal motivation spurs you on through love or curiosity. Without external motivation, one depends entirely on internal, and that can be shut down through shame from other polyglots or native speakers who won’t let you speak.
How do we keep up internal motivation? Read my blog! Loving language is all about love of language. By loving language itself, by loving the speakers of language, by loving who you are becoming thanks to your language (smarter, more curious, more connected), you have all the motivation you need.
What motivates you to learn languages? When did you decide you were dedicated? Are you not dedicated? When does motivation wane? What do you do then?