welcome to the edge

Attitudes to Language Learning

Listen while you read, enjoy.
by Anthony Fornaro

No one ever taught me how to speak English (not even in school!) nor that this language itself is a tangle of other languages, pronunciations, and varieties.
In the past ten years of my life, I have been exposed to the true English language. I spent the first two years in London, and two more becoming more familiar with the American accent. When I moved to York, after so many years speaking and being exposed to what I thought was all I needed to know about English, I was confident I had enough fluency to speak and understand the language. The truth is: for the first months I could barely understand people around me, let alone having proper conversations!

I do not know whether there is a correct or incorrect way of speaking English. What I do know is that there are many Englishes out there, and perhaps some of them are more or less intelligible than others. The way we behave in relation to one or more of these Englishes is nothing more than an attitude, positive or negative, that we adopt by influence of different features.

Have you ever met someone, whom your friends have been speaking ill about, for the first time? Most probably, the first idea you have of that person is not the best of all, even though you’ve just met them for the first time. The way we behave towards languages can work in a similar way. The attitude we adopt can be the results of ideas and prejudices we already have. A few research in the field add stereotypes to the list of role-players in the dispute between equality and inequality of things.

The correctness of speaking English most probably depends on personal experience as well as preconceptions. Perhaps, if Received-Pronunciation (what is considered to be the officially recognised version of English – the Queen’s English that is to say) is the standard English it is only because someone (possibly a speaker of Received-Pronunciation) decided that this was to be considered the perfect English. However, this does not make any other variety less correct or worth to be called English language.

Unfortunately, this is not recognised by native speakers, especially when these are the promoters of Received-Pronunciation. Such closure of mind towards anything that isn’t proper English, is well reflected on the lack of openness towards learning other languages. Something I’ve heard my fellow English countrymen saying quite often is “why should I learn another language? Everyone speaks English!”. Very true indeed, but why should you not? Why should you not open your mind to something different and perhaps mind-opening that could enrich or improve your life experience?
Learning a foreign language in UK public-funded schools it is not common practice anymore and the role of languages other than English, it is not secure at all. The request and the motivations to learn a foreign language, especially when these are EU languages, are dropping. The current debate is whether public schools should offer more “up to date” languages like Japanese, Korean or other languages which are more popular amongst the new generations. 
Learning a language is all about interest. Another word I keep hearing a lot in my field is ‘motivation’. From TEFL to CELTA (teacher training courses) passing through my TESOL degree, in any course I have completed this word has always been the key for the students’ learning. Whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic does not matter as long as the students have a reason to learn. The low level of foreign language learners in the UK is apparently due to a lack of interest. The resulting debate would be how we can motivate students to learn languages so that they could be efficient users of any language other than English.
By a language learner and experienced teacher point of view, my opinion differs. Motivation is surely important; however, this is a variable to be considered when it is the student to decide to learn a specific language – this does not normally happen in public school where the offer is limited as it should be. Do we decide whether to do math and science? No, so why should this be different for modern foreign languages? In the case of public-schools’ Foreign Language learning, I believe the final purpose is not to provide efficient users of the language but to provide the students with an open mind towards other cultures, enrich personal knowledge and enhance general culture. If seen under this perspective, whether the language is French, German or Chinese does not matter – what matters is the greater outcome that goes beyond the language itself.

When translated into English language learning, this approach, or rather my take on this approach, keeping an open mind and getting to know the culture before (or with) the language could be the key to success. So, switch all your devices to English, explore the culture and look up for fun facts, and you’ll find learning the language a much easier task than before. You can take my word on this!

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