In our ongoing series, we’re busting all kinds of myths that prevent people from learning a new language. We’ve previously looked at whether you need a special gene or talent for languages (you don’t) or if you’re too old to learn a language once you’re past a certain age (you’re not) but today’s myth is a lot more widespread in certain countries: you don’t need to learn another language because ‘everyone’ speaks English. Is this true, or are the facts more complicated than that?
English is the world’s most-studied language. It has around 360 million native speakers (1.5 billion total speakers, once you add in those who’ve learnt it as an additional language) and is the official language of a whole host of countries, including the United Kingdom, Fiji, and South Africa.
But, if you look at those numbers, you might notice something at odds with what you’ve probably seen or heard before: if there are almost eight billion people on the planet, then 1.5 billion isn’t even a quarter of that.
Why do some people think that everyone speaks English?
English is actually the language with the third-highest number of native speakers, clocking in behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish (first and second, respectively). However, it’s the number of learners that tips it over the edge into the most widely-spoken language.
Of course, this means that if you go somewhere on holiday, you’ll most likely find at least one person—if not entire communities!—who speaks English. But how has this come about?
The spread of the British Empire accounted in large part for the initial spread of English around the globe—as more countries were colonised, the people who lived in them learnt English. This led to trade increasingly happening in English and so it became useful to learn the language.
After World War Two, as more and more countries began to regain their independence from the empire, focus shifted to the USA. The spread of global media and advances in science and technology, both of which were heavily influenced by the USA, meant that English continued with a lot of momentum; even more so as time went on, television became widespread, and English began to be seen as a ‘cool’ language.
So yes, many people in many countries speak English and, if they’re younger, it’s likely they speak a fair bit of it.
But What About When They Don’t?
The UK, the USA, Australia, Canada… these are all large countries where English is a majority language (if not official) and if you were to travel just between them, then it is likely you might not have to ever learn a language that wasn’t English*.
* Note: it depends where you go, of course. Spanish is increasingly spoken across the USA (approx. 58 million speakers, which is around 17% of the population) and there are Francophone regions of Canada (Quebec, Montreal), as French is spoken by around 13% of Canadians.
However, levels of English vary dramatically across countries, both because of historical factors and because of cultural differences.
For example, Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway) tend to have populations that have an overall very high level of English; whereas countries in Southern Europe, such as Italy, do not. France and Spain, while not in Southern Europe, do come further down the list than many countries in Western Europe, which seems a little surprising. After all, Spain, France, and the UK have had a tangled history that goes back thousands of years.
In this specific case, there are obviously many different factors; education, the prestige of English versus the prestige of the country’s official language, but the key one seems to be that in Nordic countries, films and TV shows are usually not dubbed from English into their native languages.
Instead, they’re subtitled, which means that from being small children, Swedes and Danes and Norwegians watch an awful lot of media in English. They read the subtitles in the language of their country, but they hear English, hours and hours of it every week.
Of course, as we’ve seen, this isn’t the case for most countries or regions; so if you go to the Middle East, you might find fewer people with the standard of English they have in Norway, for example (many Arabic-language films are a product of Egyptian cinema, which is the most productive country in the Middle East for film production) and the same can be said for South America or East Asia.
Regardless of general levels, however, if you do travel somewhere as a tourist then you’ll likely find someone who can help you in English. If you want to travel off the beaten path, though, or make friends with the people you meet, you may have to try something else.
What’s the Magical Solution?
Well, it’s not magical, but it’s simple—in concept, if not in execution: learn their language!
Now, before you panic, no one’s saying you have to become suddenly fluent. That’s not necessary, not for travelling, not for making your life—and the lives of the people around you—a little easier.
All you have to do is be willing to learn. Believe that you can (because you can!) and then give it a go. ‘Hello’ is a good place to start, as well as ‘thank you’—and then add in the rest as and when you feel like it.
Believe it or not, no matter the language, you’ll turn out to be somewhat comprehensible, and what’s more important is that people will see that you’re trying to communicate with them and react accordingly. This might lead to you all stumbling through some awkward conversation that’s mostly hand gestures and it might mean that they switch to English to help you out, but the important thing is that, by trying, you’ve shown that you care.
If you’ve never learnt a second language before but are thinking of starting now, then why not try our uTalk app? Choose one of more than 150 languages and it’ll help you learn up to 2,500 words and phrases—most of which will be incredibly useful when you’re travelling—and what’s better is that if you subscribe via this link, you’ll even get 40% off the price of all our subscriptions. Neat, right?
Now, get out there and get speaking, whatever your language!