Supposing that everyone in the world really could speak English, would that mean that learning other languages was a waste of time?

Imogen – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Following her first essay published in The GSAL Journal on ‘How has warfare changed since WWII?‘, talented Year 12 student Imogen returns with this convincing essay written in response to the Newnham College (Cambridge) Modern & Medieval Languages Essay Prize. All female students currently in Year 12 at a UK school may enter the annual essay prizes. CPD

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, ‘Whoever is not acquainted with languages knows nothing of his own’[1]. Languages are fundamental to the identity of the human race, and the ability to master multiple languages should be considered as one of the greatest achievements an individual can make. Different languages have different advantages when it comes to the expression of certain ideas, there are of course ideas in some languages which cannot be easily translated into others. Language is also part of culture, and must be preserved in order to stop homogenisation of humanity. Furthermore, learning languages has been proved to have many benefits for the brain, preserving its function into old age. Of course, when considering the necessity of learning languages, one cannot ignore the economic benefits, as it is these which will inevitably win the argument.

It is undeniable that languages are worth learning, even just for their own sake[2]. It is not better to read Kafka is his native language of German than to read the English translation, which will not sufficiently capture the complexities and inferences of the original work. Metaphors, after all, are not easily translated between languages, and jokes often do not make sense in any language other than that in which they were conceived. For example, in Das Leben Der Anderen by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the joke ‘Was ist der Unterschied zwischen ihren Honecker and Telefon? Keiner, aufhängt, neuweg.’ translates to ‘what is the difference between Honecker and a telephone? None, hang up, try again’ which obviously does not make sense. It is imperative to understand the German properly in order to make sense of the joke[3]. This is one reason why language learning is absolutely not a waste of time even if everybody did speak English, to ensure that cultural items, such as this joke are not lost to the void of a singular language for the whole world.

Emil Cioran is quoted as saying ‘When I changed my language, I annihilated my past’[4]. Language is integral to cultural identity, reflecting the values that are considered important to that culture. German has two words for you, ‘du’, which is less polite that the alternative, ‘Sie’. This differentiation is so important to the Germans that they have a verb to use when asking to use du with someone. From this we can infer that politeness is of great value to the German culture. If all German spoke English instead of German, would this distinction be lost? Almost certainly. Traditional languages are of vital importance to many traditional cultures, as their language fades, so does their culture. Homogeny is a real threat to these cultures, as is already evidenced, the dominance of English as a global language, and its perception as a Lingua Franca, is speeding up the decline of smaller languages, as young people do not see the need to learn the traditional language of their people. Without their mother tongue, would the Welsh have an identity less separate from that of their English neighbours? The Welsh pride themselves on their bilingualism, with road signs, and schools, in both languages. The mastery of language is not a waste of time, it is unlikely that the Welsh would agree to stop teaching Welsh just because everybody in the world spoke English, as they consider Welsh an intrinsic part of their cultural identity. It is imperative that learning more than one language is encouraged, to stop the erosion of culture and halt the homogenisation of the world.

Moreover, some languages express ideas better. Multilinguals, when conversing with other multilinguals, often will switch languages in order to express themselves in the best way possible. The French concept of l’espirit has many translations in English, as does mind in French. Both concepts have different uses to a bilingual person who has mastered both. In his 1690 ‘Essay concerning Human Understanding’ John Locke mentioned the ‘great store of words in one language which have not any that answer them in another’[5]. Guy Deutscher expanded on this idea in his book ‘Through the Language Glass’ to point out that our language is undeniably linked to our culture[6]. Other linguists, such as Chomsky disagree, arguing instead that the skill of learning a language is contained within the genes[7]. Humans are born able to learn and then use language. In truth, both nature and nurture probably contribute to the ability to master a language, but nurture is definitely responsible for the language learned first. Therefore, it is important that multiple languages are taught to children and then learned throughout adulthood, in order to expand cultural boundaries and find concepts such as l’espirit or Schadenfreude which one language does not contain to help with expressing oneself.

Furthermore, it has been proved that bilingualism improves the brains executive function. In 2008, Ellen Bialystock and Michelle Martin-Rhee conducted a study on young children and found that bilingual children were more adept at carrying out mentally difficult challenges than monolingual children[8]. All children should be given this opportunity to improve their cognitive function through the study of foreign languages. It is a worrying fact that the study of language is becoming more and more reserved for middle and upper class children, who have usually already been exposed to mentally stimulating activities from a younger age than their more disadvantaged counterparts. 99% of all children at an independent school study a foreign language, compared to 38% of state school children[9]. Michael Kelly, director of the Southampton based centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area studies points out that the unintended consequence of this is that ‘the experience of other cultures is now confined to an elite’[10]. The development of English as a Lingua Franca should not be allowed to cause this statistic to drop any further, in fact it must be used to facilitate language learning. Imagine how much easier it could be to learn a language if a native speaker was able to make themselves understood in a child’s mother tongue in order to explain complex tenses and structures in another. The brains of children from English speaking nation must not be allowed to suffer from the fact that learning another language is perceived to be a waste of time. Studies also suggest that children who study languages do better in other subjects than those who do not[11]. Bilingual children are better at reading, spelling, grammar, and word-recognition. Generally they do better at maths, and often perform better than equally intelligent peers who do not study a language. Even if just for the benefits afforded to other subjects, learning a language would not be a waste of time, it would create a smarter population.

Additionally, studies suggest that elderly people who can speak more than one language are more resistant to dementia[12], a disease which ravages the brain of elderly people, slow the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which is ultimately fatal. Surely, a skill that can do this cannot be considered as a waste of time?

Finally, even if everybody spoke English, there would still be significant economic benefits to learning a language. Willy Brandt, German Chancellor, once said ‘If I am selling to you then I will speak your language. If you are buying dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen’ (then you must speak German)[13]. It is much preferable to buy things in one’s own mother tongue, and poor translations from the internet simply do not cut the mustard. Communicating directly with clients in their native language is one of the first steps to founding a lasting, stable, international business relationship. Clients will simply go elsewhere if British companies are not able to communicate with them in their native tongue, with which they are most likely to feel comfortable. In Japanese, there is a phrase which refers to the stress that comes from speaking a modern language, ‘yoko meshi[14], even if everybody did speak English, if would still be a foreign language, and surely businesses do not wish to inflict this particular stress on to their customers? Therefore, learning a language will never be a waste of time because businesses that operate internationally will always want to recruit language speakers, despite the increasing ability of the rest of the world to speak English. The companies are aware of the fact that not speaking the language of their customers would be the height of bad manners, and may lead to them losing business, which of course, is any businesses worst nightmare. Many British businesses would also prefer to hire British people who have learned to speak another language rather than foreign workers who have learned English. Even if purely for the economic reasons outlined, language learning will never be a waste of time, even if the rest of the world cater to Britain and America by learning to speak English. Companies will always want to recruit workers who can speak more than one language, so that they don’t lose custom to foreign companies, who, as other countries are unlikely to give up their own language in favour of English, will always retain the ability to communicate in more than one language. If British workers want to remain competitive in the increasingly international job market, they must learn languages.

The development of English as a Lingua Franca is undeniable, and it seems impossible to imagine that there will not be a world where the vast majority, if not the whole, world will speak English. Culture and values are increasingly becoming the same worldwide. However, language skills will always be a valuable commodity as other languages will not simply disappear, and it would be rude not to try to communicate with others in their native tongue, especially when conducting business. Language learning will also help to preserve different cultures before they are lost forever. For these reasons, language learning will never be a waste of time.

Imogen 477809


Bhattacharjee, Y., 2012. [Online]
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Cioran, E. M., 1992. On the Heights of Despair. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cosslett, L., 2019. [Online]
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Das Leben Der Anderen. 2006. [Film] Directed by Florian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck. Germany: Wiedemann & Berg.

De Valoes, L., 2014. [Online]
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Deutscher, G., 2011. Through the Language Glass. 1st ed. London: Arrow.

Edemariam, A., 2010. [Online]
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[Accessed 1 March 2020].

Goethe, v., n.d. http://www.the [Online]
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Kelly, M. a. J. D., 2003. A New Landscape for Languages, London: The Nuffield Foundation.

Kirk, 2020. [Online]
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[Accessed 1 March 2020].

Locke, J., 1996. An Essay Concerning Understanding. Abridged ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Martin-Rhee, M. E. a. B. E., 2008. The development of two types of inhibitory control in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(1), pp. 81-93.

Smith, N., 1999. Chomsky Ideas and Ideals. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wood, J., 2015. [Online]
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[Accessed 1 March 2020].

[1] (Goethe, n.d.)

[2] (Edemariam, 2010)

[3] (Das Leben Der Anderen , 2006)

[4] (Cioran, 1992)

[5] (Locke, 1996)

[6] (Deutscher, 2011)

[7] (Smith, 1999)

[8] (Martin-Rhee, 2008)

[9] (Edemariam, 2010)

[10] (Kelly, 2003)

[11] (Edemariam, 2010)

[12] (Bhattacharjee, 2012)

[13] (Kirk, 2020)

[14] (Cosslett, 2019)

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