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Professor Dagmar Divjak

The British Academy has issued a joint statement warning that the pandemic should serve as a wakeup call on language learning decline across the English speaking world. Professor Dagmar Divjak Professorial Research Fellow in Cognitive Linguistics and Language Cognition in the Department of Modern Languages, shares her thoughts.

Many native speakers of English find learning a foreign language impossibly hard. This is not surprising. English is simple in terms of its form inventory: a noun has 2 forms (book and books) and a verb typically, has 3 forms (walk, walked, walking) or 5 at most if it is irregular (go, goes, went, gone, going). Compare this to Polish, the second most widely spoken language in the UK: in terms of complexity, Polish is German on steroids. A Polish noun can take a dozen forms, and Polish verbs easily rack up close to 100. But languages are, on the whole, balanced: for every aspect that appears more complex, there will be something that is easier. The English tense system, for example, continues to confuse foreign learners: when do you say “I did it” and when do you say “I’ve done it”? In both cases you are talking about something that you completed in the past, aren’t you? English is also very demanding in terms of word choice. Even synonyms are picky: you can have fast food or a quick meal, but quick food isn’t served in the UK. In other words, the difficult is elsewhere. After all, we’re all humans, and the human brain can only handle so much complexity.

Monolingualism is starting to cost Britain dearly. According to the 2019 British Academy report, the UK’s poor language capacity has resulted in the loss of substantial economic, social, cultural, and research opportunities. Only economically, monolingualism has been estimated to cost the UK up to £48bn a year, or 3.5% of GDP, in lost trade and investment. While the number of foreigners learning English has been rising steadily, there has been a drastic decline in the numbers of native English speakers studying languages at secondary school and consequently also at university. Britain is in dire need of foreign language provision and uptake at all levels of proficiency and for all age groups. However, to achieve this, we need to change a few things. For one, we need to adjust our expectations.

We need to move away from the opinion that learning a language is a tedious and unrewarding experience, that the only end goal worthy of pursuing is near-native speaker competence, and that foreign language competence is reserved for the lucky few who are endowed with the ‘language gene’. Instead, we need to move towards accepting a spectrum of linguistic competence, and towards considering foreign language learning awareness as a skill. Let me explain.

In language learning, there is an important place for awareness of the differences between languages. Even as a beginning language learner you know an awful lot of useful things about your new language. That knowledge can help avoid misunderstandings. For example, you will know that not all languages have gendered pronouns like he and she and won’t be shocked if a native speaker of Chinese or Finnish slips up an uses the wrong pronouns. And likewise, your French, German or Polish conversation partner will not be insulted if you, without their permission, address them as you rather than with the respectful equivalent.

There is also an important place for appreciation of the learning process. It may be true that many people can interact with you in your mother tongue, but that does not mean that it is easy for them. You will be much more appreciative of any attempts, however imperfect, at communicating with you in English if you have found yourself in the same situation. Awareness of the difficulties that language learners face will not only make you more patient, but also more cooperative: very often it is possible to say things in a simpler way. Don’t ask a foreigner to confirm that their apartment is equipped with a positive action self-closing device. Just ask whether the front door closes automatically. The latter is much more likely to be understood correctly.

But I would also argue that we need to adjust our expectations when it comes to teaching methods and materials. And here we need to raise the bar: we need to move towards an approach that taps into our natural ability for language learning. Language is among the few things nearly all of us learn, but it takes years of meaningful interaction with our environment. And that is not something a foreign language learner gets. We’ve been very good at making the classroom resemble a natural learning environment more, and use more engaging materials that encourage interaction, but we’re still, very much, cutting corners. We give students words, and instructions for how to assemble those words into correct sentences, and then we make them practice. A lot. But do they ever become competent language users who can produce correct sentences in real time in this way? The jury of experts is still out on that question.

The ‘Legofication’ of language, as I like to call it, is a convenient shortcut: you can break down a complex phenomenon into a set of simple rules, but it’s not how language works (there are always exceptions …), and it’s not how language works in the human brain. The brain structures that support language aren’t very good at applying rules consciously and explicitly nor at doing this very quickly. Instead, they prefer a slow approach that is not very clear on the why and how, but once the system is up and running, output is fast and effortless. That’s the system we need to tap into. To do that, we need funding to develop new ways of teaching languages, ways that build on the strengths of the human brain so that learning doesn’t feel impossibly hard, ways that keep learners engaged so that slow learning can take place. And we need to accept that learning a language takes time: after all, we’re creating new, reliable connections in the brain. Such an approach will truly promote a view that presents language learning as something we can all succeed at.

Professor Dagmar Divjak leads Out of Our Minds, a 5 year Leverhulme-funded project which aims to create a step-change in research on language and language learning by capturing the linguistic knowledge adult speakers build up when they are exposed to a language in natural settings. These insights will help with the development of strategic language teaching materials to transform the way in which foreign languages are taught.