In this guest post, Dave Cosby looks at why some nationalities might be better at learning languages than others and considers the role that the pervasive influence of the international media might have to play…

If you look at the bottom of the screen…

Why are some nations better at learning languages than others? Is there something about their own national language that gives those speakers some indefinable attribute that allows them to pick up a language like you or I might pick up a newspaper?

The Dutch are amazing at this. I was once in a queue in an Amsterdam police station after being pickpocketed and was agog as I listened to the desk sergeant deal with Spanish, Italian, German, French and then me, English without batting an eyelid.

The Anglosphere  is notoriously monogolotal, even more so than the French, who I am sure secretly understand despite continual shrugging and exclamations of “Je ne comprends pas!”

But for me it’s all about attitude. If a country is open to other languages, and sees that they do indeed have a useful purpose (ie. there’s actually a point to learning them, after all, who wants to learn Dutch?), then people do actually learn them, and you don’t end up with the snails again, instead of the croque monsiuer you ordered, despite ordering it clearly and slowly with appropriate gestures.

Perhaps it’s all down to history. If the country in question is, or has been a big cheese, un grand fromage, they might consider it beneath them to bother with the double Dutch that the rest of the world is gabbling. Why bother? It’s all Greek to them. C’est comme parler chinois.

If you are, however, a policy maker, in one of these places, and you hope to encourage the learning of foreign languages in general, and of English in particular, what do you do?

The answer? Subtitle.

Get your national broadcaster to sack all the people dubbing the programmes and put up your first language (L1) in little white letters at the bottom of the page.

The American journalist and writer, Malcolm Gladwell, considers that the amount of time you need to spend to become truly expert in something is ten thousand hours. In his book, ‘Outliers’, Gladwell gives example after example of how those who really excel, those who define excellence in their particular field have practiced, and practiced. Then practiced some more. To him, practice really does make perfect and you know what? I think he’s on to something.

I would like to compare the average ability of students from two countries I have worked in and know well: Spain and Portugal. I could just as well be talking about Greece and Italy, two countries I know almost as well, but let’s stick to Iberia. In Spain students listen to Spanish music on the radio, watch Hollywood films dubbed into Spanish, surf the internet in Spanish… oh you get the idea. Then they go to three hours of English a week and expect their English level to rise from pre-intermediate to CAE/ IELTS 7.5/ C1 level in a school year and they are surprised and angry when it doesn’t.

A Spanish school year is short. Let’s start with the three month summer break. Then let’s subtract the two weeks at Easter and Christmas. We’ll add a week for Carnival (rounding up for the ‘puente’ holidays). That only leaves us 35 weeks or so. Which gives us just over a hundred hours a year in English. Not much is it?

Yet we have the same annual timetable in Portugal, or as near as makes no difference, and the chances are good that the boy or girl working at the supermarket checkout will speak English quite well, even in a non-tourist town miles from the coast. This is far less common in Spain. How?

Gladwell would look at numbers. So let us suppose that…

Perhaps our average student watches ten hours of TV. Maybe half of that is from Hollywood, shows like CSI or House. Yes, they are subtitled, but the audio booms along with the mid-Atlantic of Hugh Laurie and our student hears the cadence, the rhythm. If the language is not too far removed from English the friendly words that are close to L1 are caught easily, and reinforced with their dependent prepositions, their collocates. That’s a hundred hours of good osmotic English in a stroke. They watch because they want to watch, so they are motivated to understand, and not because they want to match the title to the paragraph but because they want to find out who the killer is, or what combination of unlikely sounding diseases are confusing the doctors this week. And it’s self-reinforcing.

Because students are used to listening to English on TV they watch films at the cinema in English too. Not because it’s art and that’s the way the artist intended, but because it’s easier. They will have passed the Tipping Point (to mention another of Gladwell’s phrases).

Their L1 no longer dominates their literate world so other media can get in on the act.

The average student may spend ten hours a week on the internet. I reckon that my average students spend far more than that, but let’s low-ball these numbers to make our point. Perhaps a third will be in English, maybe football websites or music write-ups, as well as Wikipedia for homework (my students’ favourite trick to avoid getting caught plagiarising from the internet in their L1 is to copy it from Wikipedia’s English website… and then translate it into L1. It doesn’t come up in a Google search by teacher then, or even Turnitin).

That still gives us more than a hundred hours with English right there. And students don’t stop surfing the web because they are on holiday; indeed the opposite is probably true.

The radio blasts out songs and they can sing along… all in English.

The immersion into English snowballs, as students self-select via the internet. I have Advanced and Proficiency students buying their university text books in English because they are a third the price of the translated derivatives.

In total our Portuguese learner of English is getting three times the access to English without breaking a sweat. We still don’t get close to Gladwell’s ten thousand hours, but we do get an accelerated learning… and I can get directions to the frozen food section in the language of Shakespeare, two thousand miles from home.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.