Long-Time Learners Who Still Don’t Speak The Language

I recently came across an interesting blog post where a teacher in Turkey wondered if there was something about Turkish language which made it harder for Turkish speakers to learn English – and vice versa. Basically he was surprised that students who had been studying English for a while didn’t speak it better – and that many English speakers did not succeed in learning much Turkish.

There were a number of interesting and informed comments, and I certainly would acknowledge that Turkish is quite different from English as a language, and that English is more similar to the Romance and German(ic) languages many English-speaking students study in school. It did occur to me though that in situations like these it makes sense to compare more than just Turkish and English, but also other languages with their similarity to English – to get a sense of if Turkish learners do in fact learn English less well than people whose languages are more similar who have studied English in a similar way for a similar length of time.

I’m not about to do that! But I can put forward a couple of additional reasons for why some learn languages better than others. My first may be more connected to my own experience with people (students) who have studied English for years but who still don’t speak it will. Lots and lots of people study English in school – and many of them probably learn it successfully. The ones who don’t, even after years of instruction, who we might fairly assume are less inclined to learning languages, are the ones who take additional classes at language schools. In this case, many teachers don’t have the “language stars” in their classes – those people have already learned! This is not at all to say that all students are there because they are slow learners – there are plenty of reasons why people may take classes. But I think it’s fair to say that those with strong language ability are just less likely to see the need to pay for additional classes.

My other theory is connected to teachers comparing their own linguistic achievement to that of their students, as far as possible anyway. The author of this post had been in Turkey for a couple of years and I believe spoke a good amount of Turkish – which is pretty impressive as far as I’m concerned, given what little I know about Turkish. There are the obvious ideas about using it in your everyday life, which probably have some merit, but it’s quite possible, especially for an English speaker who interacts with other English speakers, to live somewhere without regular local language input (or output). There are just so many variables that I don’t know if it’s useful to generalize about how long it takes to learn a language. So I don’t think I’d say that living in the country where a language is spoken is a real cause of learning the language – there are just too many cases where this isn’t true or doesn’t happen.

I might give this explanation though: Many EFL teachers are in the profession specifically because they like languages and foreign culture and such, and they generally make an active choice to go to the country they are in. In contrast, students of English more often have the language “given to them” as a requirement. I’m not implying they actively dislike it, just that they aren’t studying it out of an interest in the language; they’re studying it because they need it for the job. And like a math class or computer course, it may just be one more thing they have to study. I think having a genuine personal connection to or interest in the language makes an important difference in one’s performance when learning it – and this is something that’s hard to simulate, specifically because it needs to be genuine.