US Perceptions of Language Learning

Language, US Culture
Man listening to headphones

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A question I’ve heard a lot in the US is “How long have you been here?” The answer currently stands at 2.5 years and counting, and the reaction has often been “But your English is so good!” The degree of amazement is usually inversely proportionate to the number heard. You may imagine what it was like when that number was in the months. A frequent follow-up question is “Did you know English before you came here?”

Far from insulting me, this line of thinking is very revealing of the Americans’ notions of language-learning. What I take from it is that people often assume that you learn a language by going to a country where it is spoken. This is consistent with how language-learning occurs for many Americans, and they seem to extrapolate that experience onto other people.

Unlike in many countries in Europe and my native Russia, Americans usually don’t start taking a foreign language until middle or high school. Those who decide (or have to) take it in college often opt for a study abroad experience as a way to immerse themselves in the language and culture and to improve their language skills rapidly. Many language majors don’t start taking “their” foreign language until college — as opposed to Russia, where you need to have a certain prior knowledge of the language to major in it.

How is it different from my experience (and I hope, this is somewhat representative of other people’s experience as well)? I started taking English in elementary school (fairly early even for Russia, where most children don’t start learning another language until the 5th grade or so). I was nowhere near fluency the first 3 to 5 years, but I had a lot of time to learn a lot of nuances of grammar and register — something an intensive-course student may not have the time to do.

So, to answer the original question, by the time I arrived in the US, I had had 16 years of English instruction (along with classes in other subjects taught in English — I was a Linguistics major) with a year-long US stint in between. While my experience may not be representative of everyone in Europe or even in Russia, I think it’s safe to assume that your average Russian will have had at least a few years of English instruction prior to arriving in the US and that this learning experience will be mostly classroom-based (as opposed to immersion or stay abroad), although this tendency is gradually changing.

Is this consistent with how people learn languages in your country? If you’re American, would you agree with how I described language-learning in the US?


12 thoughts on “US Perceptions of Language Learning

  1. I can relate to what you’re saying. I am Belgian and my husband is an American, People in the USA are always so surprised when I speak English. In Belgium we speak both French and Dutch so we learn both languages in elementary school. And English in high school (we don’t have middle school), when we are 13 years old. Later also German and sometimes Spanish. So it’s not rare for an average high schooler of age 17 to speak Dutch, French, English, German and/or Spanish. So people are often surprised when I can speak/read Dutch, French, English and German. But we started learning everything in school. In a small country like Belgium it’s necessary to learn all these languages, the moment you set foot outside of the border you’re either in Germany, France or England and need to speak the local language. It’s different for Americans because everyone in the country speaks English so there is no need really to learn any other language. It has nothing to do with being “dumb” or “lazy” what some people seem to accuse Americans of. It’s just logical thinking. There is no need to learn other languages when in a country as big as the USA everyone speaks English.

    1. Good point. I also feel that people in the US hear a lot of “American dream” stories about immigrants who came to the country not knowing one word of English, so they apply this idea to (almost) everyone.

  2. It’s pretty consistent. I think what helped you was the fact that you started English instruction so early. I started learning Spanish in the seventh grade, and took it through most of high school and while I am far from fluent, I sense that I could adapt pretty rapidly. I knew a Russian woman who had taken about five years of English but still struggled when she came to the US and I think that was because of a later start. I also knew a Japanese woman who lived in the US about fifteen years and just never could get used to the language.

    My understanding of language acquisition is that the human brain is best able to learn a language between the ages of 2 and 12. Why American schools don’t start children on foreign languages earlier is beyond me.

    1. Good point. I did hear some people say that they were afraid to have their child start a fireign language too early, before they could read and write their own properly.

  3. I completely agree with you as to language-learning culture in the U.S.! As I have learned through my journey of studying Russian, Americans often expect to become “fluent” after a semester or year of immersion. We will often compare ourselves to people like you, who speak English as a second language extremely well, not realizing that it took you over a decade to achieve your high level of proficiency, and, as you mentioned, spent more time learning grammatical nuances than a short immersion experience allows. We definitely try to cram too much into too little time, and then are disappointed when we don’t reach our (overly ambitious) goals in that time period. As someone who hopes to become professionally proficient in Russian someday, this post was encouraging. I have taken about the equivalent of three years of college Russian, with a two-month immersion experience, and after returning and not being able to speak fluently, I wrongly assumed that I was doing something wrong. I now realize that time is a key ingredient in this process, and I am already beginning to set more realistic goals for developing my Russian skills. Thank you!

    1. Hi Hope,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that high expectations are dangerous and can discourage one from learning a language further if they are not “fluent” after a stay abroad. That’s probably due to all the stories of so-and-so going abroad and coming back fluent in the local language.
      People also often fail to realize that you need to have a certain level of language in order to “improve.” I worked in Geneva for 3 months, and — unfortunately! — my French is none the better. I tried to read some self-study books, but lack of formal instruction and an English-language workplace made the immersion kind of unfeasible.
      Good luck with your Russian studies, and you know how they say “Количество переходит в качество.”

  4. In the US, I have been told over and over, you’re never going to truly become fluent unless you go live in the country. I don’t know about going there for a semester or year and becoming fluent, but definitely going there. And I think it’s mainly because we start learning so late and we really don’t much linguistic influence outside of English and Spanish. But in Europe, distance wise, traveling country to country is the same as state to state here. So perhaps it’s easier for Europeans to visit countries and have people from other countries visit them, thus exposing them to the language. This is something we don’t get in America, and by starting language learning so late, it’s pretty difficult to truly know the language without being immersed at some point.

    I have heard people think that the best way to learn a language though is to just go into the foreign country and learn that way. I completely disagree. If you don’t know anything about the language, you’ll probably find people who know YOUR language and never try the target language. And it’ll make things so difficult and slow. And I do know some people who have done that, but when they return to the states they had to take language classes because they could understand but their grammar and pronunciation was horrendous because they didn’t have proper training. But I have heard the idea that immediate immersion is the best method many times.

    1. Oh also, I think so many Americans ask you those questions and compliment you because, contrary to popular belief, Americans LOVE the idea of learning language and see it as an incredibly difficult thing to do. Because they’ve never learned another language and have probably only dabbled in one once they got older, the concept of learning one seems near impossible. When people find I know another language they also tell me ‘you must be so talented, I can barely speak English!’

  5. Actually, Americans don’t speak English. They speak “American” ))
    And yeah, most Russians don’t speak English at all.
    Russians are among the worst English speakers in the world. By all ratings. Sorry, nothing personal, just business.

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