Center for Language Studies

Speaking Foreign : On speaking foreign languages amongst an international community | May 15, 2015

Learning a new language is not only about learning a new semantic system and a bunch of grammar rules. It’s also about learning a new consciousness, a new vision. It’s about getting a deeper understanding of another culture. This aspect of language learning and teaching is central to the communicative approach. “Communication” is not an easy term to grasp: it goes beyond the mastery of the four skills and imply the interaction with an “other”, whether native speaker of the target language or learner himself. Communication is the common ground established between two or more individuals to share and exchange meaning. But, from a pragmatic standpoint, more often than not, that common ground is not to be found in the target language but in English.

“Global English”, the language of an international community? With 400 million native speakers and 800 million L2 speakers accordingly to Ethnologue, English, is by far the foreign language most spoken in the world. As a result of globalization, it is overwhelmingly present worldwide. If not everybody in the world is guaranteed the same exposure to its main channels of diffusion (language classes but also television, internet, newspapers and magazines, books, radio, cinema, commercials…), English has become part of the cultural landscape even in countries where it is not an official language.

“Global English” is a sociolinguistic term with varied and sometimes contradictory definitions, one that may have postcolonial or economical echoes (see Rita Raley). Here, I simply use it to mean a version of English that encompasses its local variations (including in countries where it is not the mother tongue) and accounts for the international spread of English.

In such a context, it is not a surprise that people who speak different mother tongues would find a common ground for communication in English. But it is also not uncommon for people who speak several common languages to choose English over those other languages, even among non-native Anglophones who often speak three or more languages. In the age of Internet, social networks and low-cost flights, encounters between people and cultures have gone through the roof, especially among educated young adults from the middle classes such as our students. But within this younger community that travels the world and/or meets world-travelers, how much are foreign languages other than English actually spoken? Popular platforms that have made multi-cultural encounters and traveling in general easier and cheaper like couchsurfing (10 million members accordingly to the website) or AirBnB (25 million travelers since its creation accordingly to the website) are overwhelmingly dominated by English. Indeed, although both websites are translated in a great variety of languages, communication between hosts and locals is mostly done in English. The same is also true of prolonged sojourns. International students from different origins living abroad in France for a semester for instance, will more often than not resort to speaking English together instead of the French they are learning, even in the presence of native French speakers, simply because as a whole, they already know it better. It is a matter of present necessities rather than future projections.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the most obvious one is of course pragmatic: as far as communication is indeed the prime goal of an interaction, it will naturally tend towards the most comfortable and reliable setting. If early learners of French from different horizons are more proficient in English, they will naturally resort to it in order to ease the communication process, regardless of their goal to learn French. In such cases where communication is central, it would be artificial to speak the local language. Eclipsed by the primacy of communication, language learning can become secondary. Given the choice of languages, people will not voluntarily put themselves in a situation where risks of misunderstanding are higher by choosing a language on which words they will stumble and require twice the time it would otherwise to utter a sentence. Life is not a language classroom and total immersion in international communities for language learning purposes has very practical limits.


Make the linguistic-best of your international experience. The goal here is not to devalue such experiences. Within the boundaries of “Global English”, travelers and locals still have a lot to learn from each other and can take part in a meaningful multicultural experience. My aim is rather to underline the limits of the common idea that traveling or living abroad serves language-learning purposes. It very well can. It very often doesn’t.

There is nothing wrong with that. But when going abroad in order to learn a foreign language, this is something that students and travelers should be aware of. To make the linguistic-best of your experience, here are a few tips if you are a native speaker of English learning a foreign language, or a learned speaker of English learning a third or more language:

State your goals. This is true no matter what you do, but it is truer when you decide to learn a new language. Setting your goals is something you should do for yourself, but that you can also make apparent to others. If communication is impeded by your ability to speak the target language, the pressure of speaking English will increase. Assert your desire to speak the target language, insist explicitly.

Join the group. On one on one interactions with people who speak English (whether natives or not) it can seem extremely artificial to speak the target language. It is less so in groups of native speakers of the target language. People used to speaking a certain language together find it difficult to switch to a different code. Getting immersed in such a situation can be painful and difficult at first as it may result in a feeling of exclusion. But it is a first step towards a successful linguistic immersion.

Get out of your community. Within the international community where most people speak English, chances of speaking the target language are low. It is not so among locals that do not speak English. Such situations are typically to be found outside of the international traveling community, at the contact of older generations or different milieus. Such interactions might seem all the more artificial as they happen outside of one’s comfort zone. But they also probably lend themselves better to a truly profitable learning opportunity.

Be alone. This last one seems a little counterintuitive as far as communication is concerned. But it is also by accepting to step out of a group and structure that we open ourselves to new encounters and local experiences. By being alone in a foreign country, one is more receptive to one’s surroundings, on the lookout for clues to negociate meaning and navigate.

Overall, there is no secret to learning a new language abroad : it is a matter of voluntary discomfort and painful awkwardness. It starts with an embrace of one’s weaknesses rather than a reliance on one’s strengths, for the greater the effort, the sweeter the reward.

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