Posted by: patenttranslator | November 13, 2012

It Is Now Much Easier To Learn Foreign Languages, But Few People Bother To Do So

Just a few decades ago most people who wanted to learn a foreign language had to overcome many obstacles.

Europe was divided into two parts that could not communicate with each other, by something that Winston Churchill named the Iron Curtain for over 50 years, until 1989. (I got through it, but it took me a very long time to figure out how to do it without being shot or caught and sent to prison).

It was very difficult to obtain even a tourist visa to visit China for many decades. There was no Internet radio or instant streaming of foreign movies to your large screen TV. You could only listen to foreign languages on a few nearby radio stations on medium and long wavelengths, usually with a lot of static.

If you lived in Western Europe or United States, it was quite easy to travel from US or England to France or West Germany or Italy and vice versa if you were interested in other cultures and languages, but this was not something that people in most countries on this planet were able to do quite as easily.

With the fall of communism in Europe, the evolution of the system in China from a communist system into a capitalist system run by a communist party, and the expansion of the European Union a few years ago, it is now much easier to travel for at least a billion people. China still calls itself socialist, but in many respects it is more capitalist than the United States. I don’t think that Chinese bankers would be bailed out by their government, that is what socialist countries used to do.  It they were found to have committed crime, they would end up in prison.


Technology and Internet made it possible for example for most people to read any newspaper in any language, except of course for a few billions of them who live in third world countries and can’t afford such luxuries as Internet.

So how many more people are learning foreign languages now than 30 or 40 years ago? I don’t know the answer to this question, and Google does not even understand what I mean by this question. Some people are probably taking advantage of the new opportunities to learn a foreign language, but my guess is that for the most part, this is not the case.

I think that in spite of all of these changes, people in most countries became almost as lazy and self-absorbed when it comes to learning foreign languages as speakers of languages such as English, Russian, French or German, who traditionally have an aversion to learning foreign languages because as far as they are concerned, everybody should learn their languages first.

After all, even if you are a speaker of a “language of limited diffusion”, you can now use machine translation to “translate” just about anything into your language.

The one foreign language that has become sort of popular recently is Chinese. But I think that this is mostly a fad and that only a tiny fraction of people who start learning Chinese will become fluent in it because it is so difficult to learn. The reason why there is so much interest in the Chinese language now in the West is easy to see. When Nixon visited China in 1972, the output of the entire Chinese economy corresponded to 1/37th of US economy. It is now 1/3rd of US economy and in a few years, Chinese economic output is expected to overtake US economy.

Especially here in the United States, foreign languages seem to be taught to ensure that most students never learn much. My sons were learning French and German in high school. Neither of them knows anything beyond a few words, although both have traveled quite extensively in Europe.

The attitude of American kids to foreign languages makes sense: foreign language is something that you have to learn well enough to pass the test, but then you can forget about it because knowledge of foreign languages is completely useless.
Incidentally, this is very similar to how kids in Eastern and Central Europe (East Germany, Poland Czechoslovakia, Hungary) viewed the Russian language a few decades ago. They had to learn it from third grade at least until they graduated from high school, but most of them somehow managed not to learn anything in all those years because the language was absolutely useless – unless your goal in life was to read War and Peace in the original language.


 26 years ago I, when I was working for a Japanese company in San Francisco, my boss asked me to give a lecture about the English language to Japanese school children who were on an educational tour to America. “In Japanese?” I asked him. “No, in English, this is an educational tour”, was the answer.

I ended up mumbling something for 20 minutes or so about the differences between Japanese and English to several hundred preteen Japanese children in a packed large auditorium.

The kids were listening to me in silence, seemingly with rapt attention. They were not fidgeting in their seats, or poking each other and whispering or laughing as most children their age would.

And then I realized – these are Japanese kids. They do not understand a single word I am saying. Their mothers felt much better about paying all that money for a tour because it included a lecture about the English language, and that is the only reason why I am here.

These kids now have their own children who still don’t understand English, because just like my children, they will only learn a foreign language to pass a test and then they will quickly forget everything they learned.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that that we translators have nothing to worry about when it comes to our job security.

Most people are too damn lazy to spend years trying to learn a foreign language, which is the only way how to do something like that, and that will never change.

People are simply waiting for machine translation that will work just like human translators. It is just around the corner, and so is a new, inexpensive gadget: it will be called Universal Translator, it will translate flawlessly anything from any language to any other language and it will be sold in major electronics stores.


  1. I surely would like to brush up my French, actually learn Spanish (to stop making it up as I go along) and learn an entirely new foreign language (though Chinese does indeed seem to ambitious). But I can’t find the time or the money to do it and fear it actually may be to late (44 going 45).

    Not sure about the actual feeling of the younger generation in Portugal but I think learning a second language must still be seen as almost indispensable (specially since recently our PM has clearly advised people to emigrate).

    Whether foreign languages are being taught in an efficient way – and actually learned – that’s another matter. Yet the advantage of being a small country is that it makes us turn more to the big outside world. Hopefully…


  2. I can’t believe you just told us your age and it was not 28.


    • Do you mean I shouldn’t have told my age or I sounded much younger/inexperienced/silly?

      If the first, I think it’s not how many years you’ve lived that matters but what you’ve done with them. If the second, I always worked in translation but only went back to full-time freelance work 2 years ago. So I actually know less than a 28 year old translator, in a way 🙂


      • I am sure that you are a very good translator.

        What I meant was that most women never admit how old they are unless they can claim that they are 28 with more or less reasonable plausibility.


  3. Great post as always. However, I do not understand why you mentioned the Soviet kids. Not wanting to learn the language of your occupier is completely understandable and has no connection with the rest of your post, Steve. Just an opinion 🙂


  4. I am trying to see things from a philosophical and historical perspective.

    All the major languages – German, French, Russian, English, Spanish and some minor ones, such as Japanese, Mongolian or Portuguese – are or have been at some point languages of occupiers.

    It just depends on the country and the time period in which you happen to be living.


  5. I speak one foreign language (English) pretty well. In addition to that, I have basic skills in Swedish, German and French. So why did I learn English pretty well and never quite got there with the other ones? I’d say it’s about relevance. As a teenager, English was relevant to me in many ways (music, computers, literature), but the other ones were not. I had a personal interest to learn the language and continuous access to it. Even if learning a language is a lot of work, it can be inspiring and exciting if you have the interest and need.

    To this day, I am ashamed that my Swedish skills are so weak. I can understand spoken and written Swedish pretty well, but communicating in it is a problem. Everyone here in Finland has to learn Swedish (our second official language), but for most it’s just like for those kids you described in your article: you learn as much as you have to pass the tests. (Imagine those Finnish kids living on the Russian border and being in contact with Russian people and the Russian language every day but having to take Swedish in school instead…)

    But when I was learning the language, Swedish just had no relevance to me. I did what I was supposed to do in school, but never really got “engaged” in learning and using the language. Unfortunately, today I have several colleagues and customer contacts whose mother’s tongue is Swedish…


  6. Yes, relevance is very important for studying anything, but so is the fun factor.

    To me foreign languages were always relevant since about the age of 9 because I too grew up in a small country and very few foreigners spoke my (originally) native language. But the main reason why I studied them was that I enjoyed the process.

    There is something about being able to understand and analyze another language and communicate in it with other people, be it Russian, French or Japanese, that speaks to me and that I find very appealing. Some people paint or fish or hunt, and some people learn a language because they find it relaxing.

    It depends on how we are wired deep inside, and you can’t really change your personality.

    That does not mean that if you don’t have a talent for languages, you can’t learn them. You can, but it will probably be a long and arduous road.

    And it it’s not fun, why do it if you don’t even need it that much?


  7. […] Just a few decades ago most people who wanted to learn a foreign language had to overcome many obstacles. Europe was divided into two parts that could not communicate with each other by what Winsto…  […]


  8. “It is now much easier to learn foreign languages, but few people bother to do so.”

    Statistics in this regard cannot be found in Google or in WolframAlpha. We can only guess that it is the case. Why we believe it is so?

    “Yes, relevance is very important for studying anything, but so is the fun factor.”

    Steve, more than the fun factor. When you want to know if the propaganda of the rulers in your country telling the truth about foreign affairs and happenings in other countries, you would want to read publications in foreign languages. When you are interested in cultures and histories of other ethnical groups, you would try to get in touch with them and learn their languages, because then you see the relevance: no man is an island.

    However, it is not possible for a person to learn all the languages. For our individual survival, we have to set our own priorities. We choose to learn those languages within our reach.

    “Most people are too lazy to spend years trying to learn a foreign language, and that will never change.”

    Not always because of their laziness, people are just differently gifted. That’s why there are people who need us. It is great that human societies have been functioning this way to ensure our existence as translators/interpreters.

    However, I would let them believe in a Universal Translator for some time and come back to us for cleaning up the mess caused by the thing that they bought in some electronics stores. There would be much much more fun to take their money in exchange of the services I provide in such a way. 😮


  9. “However, I would let them believe in a Universal Translator for some time and come back to us for cleaning up the mess caused by the thing that they bought in some electronics stores. There would be much much more fun to take their money in exchange of the services I provide in such a way.”


    Wenjer’s philosophy for living a good life summed up in two sentences.


  10. “The results are still not perfect, and there is still much work to be done, but the technology is very promising,” Rashid wrote in a blog post this week. “And we hope that in a few years we will have systems that can completely break down language barriers. In other words, we may not have to wait until the 22nd century for a usable equivalent of Star Trek’s universal translator.”

    Wouldn’t it be a nice living beyond the lightness of being, Steve, when we help cleaning up the mess the promising technology causes? (There is still much work to be done!)


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