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Language in the 21st century: Why it helps to know more than just English

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Thus, in recent times, it has been possible to travel throughout much of the world equipped with the ability to speak the English language and nothing else. Monoglots, including large numbers of Britons, were not always motivated to learn a new language, even when travelling regularly or sometimes even living abroad in a country where another language is spoken.

There are many reasons why English speakers may not have learnt another language.  Many are embarrassed to make a mistake. Others may believe that only the well-educated or elite are expected to learn another language. Still, others may think another language is simply too difficult to learn and abandon the thought before ever really trying. And, more controversially, some simply think that everyone should speak English when speaking to a native English speaker.

As we move further into the 21st century, the linguistic world is changing. Although few people would predict the demise of English, having additional language skills is growing in importance. Whether for a more global role at work or for working in a more multicultural environment at home, being able to speak another language starts to bridge many cultural gaps.

The Guardian reports on a campaign that is encouraging people to learn a new language by starting with 1000 words as an achievable goal. The campaign is being led by Speak to the Future, which comprises several organisations and is funded by the British Academy, Routes into Languages, and supported by many other organisations.  As the British Government now recognises the need for foreign language skills, reversing a recent trend, the 1,000 words campaign is supported by the British Council as well as several European organisations.

For many people, 1,000 words may seem like a big challenge. However, the average educated adult whose mother tongue is English knows between 5,000 and 10,000 words. No more than 2,000 words are used on average by most of us in day to day life. 1,000 words is the average vocabulary of a six year-old. And although the average six year-old may not be as eloquent as a well spoken adult, the average six year-old can be understood easily in most environments. Perhaps 1,000 words is not such a big challenge after all.

Language is not an elite skill. Nor is it particularly difficult, especially for those who are motivated to learn and have a realistic expectation of fluency, accent and the amount of effort needed. Overcoming the feeling of embarrassment or awkwardness simply requires an attitude adjustment. Of course, practicing a new language is probably the best way to enforce your new vocabulary and will no doubt expand your vocabulary as well. Applying new language skills to an interest you enjoy – music, travel, the arts, or simply making new friends – makes it seem like less of a chore and more of a pleasure. 1,000 words don’t need to be hard work.

Pascale Chauvot is the Head of Training Management at Communicaid, a culture and communications training provider. A French national based in London, she specialises in languages and has previously taught French and Spanish in schools before becoming a professional language trainer. 

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