Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Is it Cool to Speak a Foreign Language?

Recent innovations in technology have shown that language learning is becoming more and more popular. The other day I stumbled across a delightful “language learning” YouTube video. There are hundreds maybe thousands of such videos on the Internet and they get lots of visitors.

This particular one, called “language learning evolution (part 1)” was made by a 22-year-old student from Taiwan, who describes how he has learned several languages. The video runs about 13 minutes.

Essentially, his message is: “go slowly, language learning takes time” and “speak, speak, speak.” (He doesn't mention specific courses or methods.) It's personal, fun to listen to, inspiring, and yes, it's cool!  I hope it indicates a trend in language learning!

My Own Language Learning Experience

When I was a teenager, my family had emigrated twice and I had attended school in each of the countries. I spoke three languages fluently. Was that cool? No way! 

I had an accent, a kind of European mix that kids noticed and sometimes made fun of. On top of it, I was totally clueless about what's been called “the secret (social) rules” of my new home country, Canada.

The whole dating scene was a mystery to me (at age 13 “everyone” went to weekly dances in church basements and community centers). I may have been able to speak English pretty well, but I was not fluent in the kind of social small talk that teenagers on this side of the ocean engaged in.

Did I hide that I could speak other languages? For sure!  I didn't want to be different. I had two personas, and my social one did NOT include being trilingual.

When friends came to my place, I tried to keep my parents linguistically in line. But they did slip up from time to time and lapsed into German, the language they spoke with each other. That embarrassed me a lot.

To top it off, my mother did not have the vocabulary for scolding me in English. So she usually reprimanded me in her native language, Dutch. My friends already knew and would tease me: “Now she's getting mad, she's speaking Dutch! What did you do?”

Are Attitudes Towards Foreign Languages Changing?

It wasn't just my peers who thought it was uncool to speak in another language. Riding the bus, my mom and I would speak Dutch with each other. On occasion, someone would turn to her and say: “You are now in Canada. Why don't you speak English!”
I imagine that one could hear a similar comment today, in any country - even though the Internet allows easy access to foreign cultures, social networks, and a large array of language programs - all across language barriers.

As children and adolescents grow into adults, they may discover that speaking another language not only is “cool” but also opens doors professionally. A second language is an asset for studying, working abroad, or traveling.

To the extent that Generation Y (also called the Net Generation) can take advantage of the language learning offerings of the web, they may even get a head start in overcoming the language attitudes of former generations.

What do you think, can the web help change attitudes about people speaking other languages?