I can’t make you love languages

No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?
No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

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.

  1. There is no necessity or interest to learn a language for many people;
  2. Polyglots shame monolinguals;
  3. Monolinguals (mistakenly) believe one needs talent to learn languages (one actually just needs dedication);
  4. Monolinguals come from many nations; it is not an American phenomenon;
  5. People in other countries often don’t allow you to practice a language besides English;
  6. 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?

6 thoughts on “I can’t make you love languages

  1. Rachel

    You make a number of interesting points.

    I think native English-speakers are more likely to be monolingual than native speakers of other language. This is probably related to Point 1, since English is the widely-accepted global interaction language, so native English-speakers don’t see any need to learn a second language when their first one is good worldwide. It’s also related to Point 5, because people who speak other languages are falling over themselves to learn English, which just fuels English-speakers’ belief that their language is really the only one they need. With regards to Point 4, it mayn’t be just an American phenomenon, but being a chiefly English-speaking country doesn’t help!

    (Interestingly, on that note, the Australian government is pushing Asian language big-time in schools, because we’re (a) technically a pacific/Asian nation and (b) that’s where the world economy is shifting. It’s not just the usual suspects – Mandarin and Japanese – which have been taught in schools for decades now, but they’re also pushing Korean and Vietnamese, which have previously just been heritage languages (meaning that children of those backgrounds learn the language and community schools out of hours, rather than the languages been taught at school), and Indonesian is being increasingly dropped (the main reason for teaching Indonesian is because they’re our closest neighbour).)

    I have to admit I could be more tactful towards people who don’t speak a second language. Usually I try not to mention how many languages I speak/learn, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I’m doing Year 12 French this year (long story, but it’s my only subject so I can finally finish high school), and people go on about how great it is that I’m learning a language, how useful it will be to speak French, how I could travel to Africa or Canada, and often I just cut in and say, “Oh, yes, and my Spanish opens up South America, German gets me into a whole lot of Europe and will make it easier if I should decide to learn Afrikaans, and the Gaelic is just for fun.”

    I can’t understand how anyone can be happy speaking only one language, knowing that there’s a whole world of countries and cultures out there that they’ll never be able to understand. But that’s their choice, I suppose. Particularly if they’ve been turned off learning languages by Primary School language (a joke, really. Some cultural stuff, nothing else) and the mandatory year or two in High School (just about everyone chooses German because it’s close to English. Bludge lesson. Drove me mad). So many teenagers learn a language – and learn it decently – for two or three years, and then drop it when they get to Year 11. And that’s sad, and if they’re a friend of mine, I usually pester them about it. (Usually with something along the lines of, “Don’t you know language marking is scaled up in SACE and you get extra points on your ATAR for a language, too?”) I’m pretty tactless towards my sister about languages most of the time, too, but hey, she’s my sister, and it’s paid off, because she started French this year. And she’s even getting really frustrated with how slowly her class is moving and how disinterested everyone is.

    On Point 6, Australia has one of the lowest population densities in the world (3rd-lowest, after Mongolia and Namibia). So based on that, Point 6 does have merit. Australia is far more monolingual than it really should be. (Although, it seems, this only applies to Australians of Anglo-Celtic origin. The descendants of the (largely English-speaking, although there were a lot of Irish- and Gaelic-speaking) original settlers. Over 46% of Australians, however, have direct ties overseas, which means their parents or grandparents were born overseas – Vietnam, Korea, various pacific nations, southern and eastern Europe, as well as the usual suspect (the British Isles). Most of these can speak their heritage language to some extent. You could probably make up the further 4% of the population when you consider all the indigenous Australians in central and north-west Australia who speak their own language (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunitjatjara, Warlpiri, Kriol, etc) as well as English. So that’s almost 50% of Australians who are bilingual! It’s hard to believe if you’ve been here).

    But, also, Canada ranks 9th on the list of low population density, and I was surprised when I went their how bilingual it is. Of course, they have two official languages, and many Canadians will tell you how they don’t speak French at all, but the truth is, most of the Canadians I spoke to, even the Anglophone ones, spoke a decent amount of French. Papua New Guinea is 22nd on the list and there are over 800 languages spoken in such a small country. Most educated PNGers speak their own language, Tok Pisin, and English, but I don’t imagine anyone would be able to go through life there without speaking Tok Pisin and a couple of other neighbouring languages. New Zealand is 31st, and the situation there is much the same as Australia regarding heritage languages, except they’re making great strides towards becoming a bilingual nation. Something like 25% of children are in Maori-language education, and most of the rest learn Maori at school. Just about all official paperwork and signage is in both languages.

    The USA is 51st on a list of low population density, which puts it about a quarter of the way through. (Personally I thought the US was crowded). I think the US is more multilingual that it gives itself credit for. But 2020, I believe, it will have the largest population of Spanish-speakers in the world. I saw signage in Spanish everywhere. Of course there was a lot of general signage in Spanish in Texas, but even in places like Iowa and Indiana, I saw “caution: wet floor” signs in Spanish and food packaging came in both languages. In fact, I saw just as much Spanish in those parts of the US as I did French in Vancouver. Also most schools in America teach Spanish as the second language, which gives a lot of nice uniformity. Everyone learns the same language. (Australia’s hopeless. The second language taught, particularly in primary school, largely depends on what the school wants and/or is able to get a teacher for. It’s often the heritage language of the area – Italian or German in SA – but if not, it’s entirely arbitrary). If there weren’t so much animosity towards Spanish and Spanish-speakers by people of white European ancestry in the US, you’d probably be a bilingual nation by now! At an rate, you’re going to have to get an official language (or two) soon.

    Wow, I’ve written a lot! You should take it as a compliment – it was an interesting post to provoke that much rambling from me.


    1. alice

      It may just be youthful exhuberance on your part, but you should know that generally it’s not polite to boast about your skills. It’s hardly going to endear you to people. And whilst you are learning languages, you may wish to learn about the difference in English between disinterested and uninterested. I’m assuming that your incorrect use of “their” was a typo.


      1. @Alice: I think Rachel already recognizes the dangers of boasting because she said, “I have to admit I could be more tactful towards people who don’t speak another language.” When one knows how to do something that others can’t, one can unfortunately find oneself being less than tactful. I know, for example, that I don’t endear myself to my wife when I correct her grammar or word usage. It’s best to leave this alone unless she asks my opinion.

        In her multiple comments on this blog, Rachel has endeared herself to me through her exhuberance towards learning languages.


  2. Thanks a lot for the link! I’m glad that something from LATG inspired you. I actually turned that comment into a post of its own. (Those are always convenient!)
    Still wish I knew who the anonymous comment came from. I invited that person to email me personally so we could discuss it further but so far that individual has not been back to that post, or has opted not to say anything more on the subject.
    Great post, keep it up!


  3. Pingback: What you miss when you’re not an ecolinguist – Loving Language

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