Some Observations On Language Acquisition

After visiting different countries and lived in some places as a tourist, I noticed different important aspect in language learning. With my experience of living 20 years in France, 1.5 year in 北京 (Beijing) and after my Trip in 上海 (Shanghai) or in 서울 (Seoul), I observed a bunch of differences. These differences are in majority created by choices made by people or governments (sounds stupid right ? But they actually play different roles). The people can create differences like the one I will introduce by actually learning a language for personal reasons (business, pure knowledge, …). And Governments make decisions to improve the population’s life (Economy, reputation, …). Let’s talk now about the differences I became aware of during my travels and let’s try to see how these differences became reality.

Korea — 서울 (Seoul)

Seoul

One of my friend already visited Korea before me and he told me : “OK, I need to tell you something about this country before you go there” and he added : “You’ll be shocked by the number of people who can speak English”. I replied “No way!” because I thought it would be the same as 北京 where nobody can speak it. I decided to know more opinions and I talked with another friend who went there in 2008. She told me: “Nobody can speak English! So prepare yourself”. I was a little bit confused but as my first friend went there more recently the other one I decided to trust him on this point. What if it was true ? I knew nothing about this country (as a lot of westerners know nothing about east Asia in general).

The trip was really short (I mean in comparison with others I did), only 1:30 hour by plane from 北京 to 서울. Once I arrived at the airport, I needed to take the subway to go the guest house. So as it was a one week long trip, I wanted to take a subway card. I went to the ticket office and tried my luck and ask for it in English. And you know what ? She answered: “you need to go to the convenient store, just there”. Yes, she has a strong accent (I have it too) but we were able to understand each other without any problem. Isn’t it the purpose of communication and language ?! I finally took my card, went to the guest house and went out to walk a little bit around. I needed a coffee. I went to a small café managed by a 30 years old woman, of course asked in English and she answered with the same language. I was used to it now, no more shock. But when I went out, I kept the door open for one 80 years old guy and he said: “thank you”. I was shocked again.

Don’t misunderstand me, the Korean are not all fluent in English. For the majority of them, then know the vocabulary for their business and some directions, greetings, etc… But you know what ? I think this is awesome ! When I’m in China or in France, old people in general can’t really speak another language. It can be comprehensible for China which open the borders not long ago, but France ?! We live next to England ! Don’t tell me we never did trades with them. Let’s go back to Korean people. Each time you’ll talk to them in English they will say something like: “My English is not good” (once again with a string accent), but they will try and 99% of the cases they will succeed in helping you. This is definitely admirable.

China — 上海 (Shanghai)

Shanghai

This trip was the longest … 16 hours by train. Once again, my friend went there before me and he wanted to let me know something. He said: “This city is one of the most international. Don’t think you’ll be able to practice your Chinese there”. Actually, we did this trip to go to an event and fortunately there was a purpose because I was feeling bad after his advice. Once I arrived there, I said to myself: “OK, that’s definitely true. I never saw that much foreigners in 北京”. I was hearing all the languages possible: French, English, Spanish, Russian, … As you can imagine the English level there was really high and even little Chinese restaurants have the menu in English and can handle your order. If you see it for my point of view it was not that great because I wanted to practice Chinese but let see it for a different point of view. Let’s take the example of me going in Korea. So if I went to 上海 just for one week, without learning Chinese. Guess what ? I think it would be a great place for me.

Oh ! I didn’t mentioned that I was not able to practice my Chinese (trust me I tried) because I was not able to understand their accent and dialect. It’s totally different from what I heard in 北京. Some friends tried to tell it me but as an eternal skeptic, I needed to see it by myself. I want to say to my friends: “I admit, you were right !”.

Mini conclusion

As we saw in this two cities from different countries, the development of international business impact the society. Language acquisition is a need in that kind of market because the people who can evolve and make trades with foreigners will thrive. And the one which can’t, will close their company. It’s understandable and logic right ? But now let me present you one other case and maybe you will see things a little bit differently.

China — 北京 (Beijing)

Beijing

Ah 北京 ! I can’t really described how I like this city. It’s history, the traditions and customs, and finally the language (which is not only in 北京, I need to admit). I’m currently master student in this city. My university is sharing the first place in the schools’ ranking in china and the local students here are excellent. You can’t even imagine the competition they have before to be able to enter that school. One of the requirements is, I let you guess for few seconds ……………… English ! So, of course you expect them to be able to help you when you just arrive in China right ? Let me share with you the story of the longest day in my life. It was my first day in 北京, I needed to go to my school, do the classic administrative stuffs and go to the supermarket to buy some food. In a normal school it would just take few hours but here It took me the all day.

Let’s first start with the “go to school” step. One advice, it’s not a good sign when people from the school tell you: “Show the paper with the address on it to the taxi, and be careful to not take illegal taxis”. It means two things: “You can get ripped of in terms of price” and “Nobody speaks English”. So, we finally took a taxi at the gate of the airport and I need to confess that with our luggages and tiredness we didn’t really care about the price at that time. We just wanted to go the school and lie on our beds. After maybe 1:30 hour of taxi (yes, 北京 is big) we arrived at a shitty school gate. It was not the place we needed to go but ….. The taxi was lost. He told us (I’m totally guessing): “Go out of the car, ask for directions to them” and he was pointing the guards at the gate. That’s what we did, but they were just pointing a direction on our right. We decided to walk there and finally we found the real gate, the one we needed to go.

The first step took us around 2:30 hours to 3:00 hours. But then we need to go to our buildings and ask for a room. Once we arrived at the office, they wrote on a paper “19” and said: “Building”. We went to the famous building 19. The guys there just showed us the price on a calculator, we paid and got the keys. and we need to go back our own buildings. The description is not that long right ? That’s true but it took us another couple of hours.

The final step: “Find food”. You may already know that we are survivors and that we need food. We asked a bunch of students in the school if they can speak English, some of them said a sincere “No” and some of them said “Yes”. We decided to ask one more question to the ones who said yes. “Where can we find a supermarket ?” and at the end of this question all the students without exceptions, was faking sentence construction in their mind, said: “I’m sorry” and left. By chance we found a guy who was able to speak a little bit English and told us to come with him. We followed him and he brought us to a phone shop. We didn’t understand at first but we then realize he wanted us to take a SIM card because he would have a money for each new SIM card sold. Finally, he brought us to the supermarket. SUCCESS !

Please, Give us more objective answers!

As you noticed, I talked only about my personal experiences which is not that good if we want to really evaluate a country or even a city because you will never visit all the places and meet everyone in those places. Now let’s see some objectives points based on real facts.

Let’s take for example China and USA. These countries have big markets. China have a huge internal market and USA have a big enough internal market but they can also touch all the people who can speak English. So it’s time to see the first question: Why would people from USA or China focus on language acquisition ? They can just focus on their own country and do great business. It explains in part the choice of these countries because they don’t really need to evolve to make business. If we talk about Korea now, it’s a small country and even if they have big cities, if they want to expend they directly need to learn English or Chinese. It’s not just Korea, it’s all the countries which have languages spoken in few places or just in the country.

Another point for Chinese case. Chinese people really care about keeping their culture and at the same time improving. Sometimes it gives some funny cases but we are not here to talk about this. As you may know China was a closed country which was living by itself. It then opened more to the world and became very influential. Everything grew too quickly, so we have a old generation living with old values and a young generation which tend to travel more, learn languages and make business abroad. China needs time to evolve and in my opinion they will evolve quicker than all the European countries did.

There is also another explanation, the human is reluctant to changes. What we have now is good enough no ? Why do I need to risk to loose something I already have to maybe have more ? What if it doesn’t work ? Of course some countries are more prone than other to have this kind of thoughts and at a lower points it depends on people. No need to criticize them, we need that kind of people who prevent some others who decide too quickly. How does it apply to language ? Let’s say you want to learn Polish because you think it’s the next big language. Unfortunately, 10 years later this language is still at the same level (no offense to my polish friends), you spent a big amount of time to get better but now it brings you nothing. Is it worth ? Some will think yes and some will think the opposite. Nowadays, you can do pretty safe choices in language learning but what about people in the past. People generally learned another language because they were colonized or to do business with neighbors. At some points some people learned English because they thought it will be the next big language and they found big opportunities. For others, they can still do business with the neighbors but need to do big efforts to learn English and they miss present opportunities.

And finally, on earth, countries maintain relations with other for a long time. It can be because of historical clashes, it can be because of religion or just because these two are complementary in terms of resources creation. Depending on the relation (sane or insane), theses two populations will be more or less influenced by each other. We can take the example of France at first. We had a historical past of competition with England, and you can still see some stigmata. The both sides think they are better than the other and nobody want to mix their culture, even if they are similar. This complex of superiority or the overconfidence depending on the side, will not permit these country to evolve and maybe do great things together. In this case, I think it’s unconscious and that’s even harder because we can’t really solve what we can’t see.

Conclusion

We talked about how different cities have different levels of language acquisition (we only talked about English because it’s one of the most useful in my opinion). I also tended to generalize but I wanted to talk about a general trend. I’m not saying nobody in 北京 can speak English or everyone in 서울 can speak it. As I said the differences come from people or the government choices. In 서울 it comes from both sides, the city is really westernized and welcome a lot of foreigners. In 上海, I think the situation is a little bit different. Yes, the government in China is trying to make effort to bring more foreigners in the country but I feel like in this city, It’s just the mix of cultures, and the need of doing business which helps people to learn a language.

I would like to say that in this article 北京 can be seen as a bad place if you’re a foreigner. With the point of view I give in this article you maybe canceled your trip (I hope not, because you miss something). But I want to clarify something, I can tell that China is developing itself (even if it’s a big economy), new generations are learning English at a really high level. For now, the young generation (people from 15 to 30) is really strong on two points: reading and writing. They know words I even don’t know and I feel like I’m fluent. This is a result of learning a language for an exam (the 高考, gao kao). They learn words they will never use and they don’t practice oral part. China will grow stronger and stronger on international business and it’s hard to see the level they can reach considering that they are one of the strongest country now.

Finally, I’m writing this article just after a travel in Korea and this travel made me realized that language is something incredibly awesome. I was aware that language helps people to do extraordinary things, I was aware that it helps people to understand each other but I wasn’t aware of how beautiful it is. We don’t really take time to observe a language we just use it as if it was a stupid tool. We tend to forget that these tools have a history, that they represent a culture but also are big indicators on how a person or a population can improve.

I would like to know more about what you think. So please reach me on the social platform you prefer (take a look at the bottom of the page) and explain me your point of view or tell me other stories you lived.

Written on December 13, 2017