Why learning another language makes you a better communicator in English


A recent BBC article titled Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators reported on research that found that monolingual English speakers are generally worse than non-native speakers at communicating in international contexts. They introduce confusing language, misunderstand what others are trying to communicate and have a hard time getting their own message across as well, according to the article.

I tend to take these kind of claims with a grain of salt, so I was only half-convinced until last week, I heard a story from a friend (who hadn’t read the article or heard of it) that basically confirmed everything the article claimed. She works for an international company in France (though she’s Spanish) and her company had specifically recruited a team of people who speak English non-natively.  The team was getting along swimmingly, working on a project aimed at reinventing the brand in the face of big changes in their market.

Then, a native speaker of English from the London office came for a visit. My friend told me that this colleague introduced all kinds of miscommunications, and despite the best intentions, had a very hard time understanding others and being understood himself. She recalled a conversation earlier in the day when a colleague had mistakenly pronounced the word recipe as “ruh-seep” (as any sensible person having learned how silent ‘e’ in English works would).  The only one who had a puzzled look on his face and didn’t get the point was, of course, the Brit.

That’s only the half of it, she said. He uses words and acronyms that no one else is familiar with, and his communication style is not the clear, direct style of her international colleagues. It’s British.  This is not to say that the British are bad communicators. It’s just when the common language is International English, being a monolingual native speaker puts you at a disadvantage. Here’s why:

1. Learning a second language makes you aware of the idiosyncrasies of English.

When you learn how another language encodes meaning into words, you realize there really is more than one way to cut up the pie. Why, for example, can luggage never be plural but suitcase can?  Why do we use the present tense to talk about the future in sentences like “I’ll call you you when he arrives at the hotel”?  When you learn that other languages construct phrases and sentences differently, you become more knowledgeable about your own language, which makes understanding International English easier.

2. Learning a second language makes you a better interpreter of body language and contextual cues. 

Have you ever noticed that non-native speakers seem more alert and tuned in when speaking a language? That’s because they’re working extra hard to pick up on body language, context cues and any other relevant information besides the words being fired at them to figure out meaning. This forms skills in interpreting more than just the face value of what someone says to you.

3.  Learning a second language can build your vocabulary, in English. 

If the language you learn has any shared history with English, you’ll learn words that share a common ancestor with some words that you might not have known well or used otherwise in English. An example from Spanish is the word for blood sangre which shares a root with sanguine or more directly, you might even learn some words that have been borrowed into English such as schadenfreude from German.

4. Learning a second language makes you likable. 

More and more English-speakers in particular are realizing the benefits of being multilingual. And who isn’t impressed when they hear someone switch seamlessly back and forth between two or more languages. Learning a new language can bring you more respect and admiration, which may make people be more attentive to what you say.  At a minimum, it will build bridges between you and others who have learned a second language and know what an effort it requires.

If you’re interested in getting started, you can take a look at our course offerings on our home page, read our blog posts about getting started in a new language and try out part of our courses before purchasing in our Language Lab.