Why should I learn English?

Pearson Languages
teenage boy studying with headphones on and  with a laptop

English is the second most widely spoken language – it is estimated that nearly two billion people worldwide can speak English at a useful level. That means they can hold a conversation with other English-speaking people.

A report by the British Council attests the importance of the English language to the world, and says that second-language English speakers far outnumber fluent English speakers. It also recognizes how being able to speak English can give individuals a competitive edge over others. If you're asking the question, "Why should I learn English?", read on to find out more...

Why should I learn English?
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Gaining a competitive edge can be particularly appealing for people seeking new jobs or looking to advance in their careers. Because of the number of English speakers in the world, many international companies choose English as their language for business use.

Well-known companies such as Renault, Samsung and Airbus are using English in the workplace and it’s not a moment too soon. Using the language is helping them to facilitate communication and make their businesses more efficient.

In emerging markets like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam, or low-income countries striving to climb the ladder of economic development, it is the urgent priority of governments and non-government organizations to ensure that the surging population of global youth has economic opportunities and upward mobility.

The idea of learning English has widely been accepted as best practice and programs are in place to facilitate this, such as the Right to Reading initiative in India. Students sit in state-of-the-art computer labs to learn how to master the English language. They listen to a voice with an Indian accent read from their textbook, and every spoken word is displayed on a large screen.

There are many other reasons why studying English today is a smart choice. Because the language is understood in many parts of the world, being able to speak English can give travelers confidence and help them integrate into the culture.

Imagine visiting The Shard in London, or the Chrysler Building in New York and being able to find out more about these impressive structures in the native language. Interacting with the locals in their native language – or a language that is common to both speakers – provides learners with interesting experiences, while the satisfaction of the accomplishment boosts motivation for further learning.

As well as learning the language for pleasant conversations, there are more benefits than just experiencing a confidence boost. Medical research has shown that there are several cognitive benefits to learning another language, and these include:

  • Being a better listener: Being bilingual requires your brain to discern between two sets of very distinctive sounds and to identify them accurately.
  • Being less distracted: Speaking in a foreign tongue requires the active suppression of the other language(s) that one knows, shown to better inhibit overall distractions.
  • Becoming a better multitasker: For someone who knows multiple languages, it’s a common occurrence to switch rapidly between tongues, effectively an exercise in quickly and efficiently switching between different tasks.
  • Better ability to problem-solve and be creative: Speaking in a foreign language inevitably requires creativity when faced with unfamiliar words or phrases in order to communicate effectively. Studies have shown that bilinguals have an advantage in overall problem-solving and creativity.

There are also health benefits associated with mastering English. A study from the University of Edinburgh found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities in later life and had effectively slowed the brain’s aging process, with the potential to even delay the onset of dementia. The same researchers found that bilingual people are twice as likely to recover from a stroke than those who speak just one language. Dr Thomas Bak, one of the researchers, said that switching languages “offers practically constant brain training, which may be a factor in helping stroke patients recover”.

Research led by Dr Daniela Perani, a professor of psychology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, found that people who speak two or more languages seem to weather the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease better compared to people who have only mastered one language. Alzheimer’s is a progressive mental deterioration (dementia) that can begin in middle or old age, due to generalized degeneration of the brain.

We looked into this more closely in our blog post, How being bilingual can keep your brain in good condition, and were pleased to say that the theory that being bilingual can be a buffer against aging and dementia is backed up by a further study conducted by a team led by Professor Ana Inés Ansaldo at the University of Montréal. The results suggested bilingual people have stronger and more efficient brains compared to those who only speak one language.

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    Imagine a class of English language students aged 8 – 9 taught by a dynamic teacher they love. The young learners sit together for two hours, three times a week to learn English as a Foreign Language (EFL). The vibe they bring with them to the class, plus the dynamic teacher and the creativity she develops in her lesson plans, is fantastic.

    I have been observing trends in teaching EFL to young learners, and it is clear to me that school directors, syllabus generators, teachers, parents and learners are all satisfied with this image… “Hooray! Young learners sit together for two hours, three times a week to learn English as a Foreign Language. And the teacher is able to manage the class. Bravo!” But is it enough?

    What causes the lack of focus?

    It all begins with the coursebooks. If you take a coursebook for young learners and thumb through the ‘Scope and Sequence’ pages, you’ll see holistic definitions of language input in each unit. The school authorities then design a course based on the coursebook, and the snowball effect happens, whereby they design a course without specific details on what exactly to focus on.

    It is the teacher’s turn now. The creative and dynamic teacher provides an excellent classroom experience through which young learners can learn English together. She also assigns a piece of homework: write an email to a friend and tell her about your last holiday.

    When the teacher reviews the emails, she smiles as she finds many uses of the simple past tense—both in affirmative and negative forms. She then drafts an email thanking everyone and praising them generously. She includes a link to a PDF of other exercises to reinforce the grammar (the next day in class, they will review the completed handouts).

    This hardworking teacher tries to blend her style with digital literacy and applies creativity along the way. Everything seems perfect in her class, and she regularly receives emails from parents thanking her. Nevertheless, some questions remain: What was the task? What was the learning outcome? Which learning objective should have been tracked?

    Let’s reconsider the task – this time with our critic’s hat on – and analyze what has been taking place in this class. It is very nice that young learners sit together to learn English, and the teacher is able to manage the class successfully, but having fun and ease alone is not enough. We should aim for “fun, ease and outcomes”.*

    *Assessing Young Learners of English: Global and Local Perspectives, Dr Marianne Nikolov, 2016.

    Which important dynamics should be considered?

    The assigned piece of homework said: write an email to a friend and tell her about your last holiday. However, what actually occurred was a shift from this task to the students’ best performance in producing simple past-tense sentences. There are other important dynamics that have migrated out of the teacher’s focus. Did the students begin their emails appropriately? Was the tone appropriate? Did they pay attention to organizing their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs? Was the punctuation correct? Did they end their emails in the right way?

    If the coursebook had been equipped with clear and concrete learning objectives, the course directors would have employed them while designing study syllabuses, and the teacher would have used them when lesson planning. Consequently, the student’s formative and summative progress would have been evaluated against those detailed learning objectives rather than according to what some did better than the average.

    How can learning objectives be applied to tasks?

    With the Global Scale of English (GSE), publishers, course designers, teachers, and even parents can access a new world of English language teaching and testing. This global English language standard provides specific learning objectives for young learners that can be applied to tasks.

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    • Can write short, simple personal emails/letters about familiar topics, given prompts or a model. (GSE 40/A2+)
    • Can use appropriate standard greetings and closings in simple, informal personal messages (e.g., postcards or emails). (GSE: 37/A2+)

    By applying language learning chunks – learning objectives, grammar and vocabulary – and identifying the can-do mission each one is supposed to accomplish, teaching and testing become more tangible, practical and measurable. Going back to my original scenario, it is excellent that young learners sit together for two hours, three times a week to learn English as a Foreign Language – provided that we know in detail which learning objectives to focus on, which skills to grow and what learning outcomes to expect.

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    Engaging in movement and dance can substantially impact mental health, as evidenced by various studies and academic research. For instance, a notable study published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy highlighted that dance, particularly in structured environments, can reduce anxiety and improve mood among participants. This connection between dance and mental health improvement can be attributed to the release of endorphins, often referred to as happiness hormones, which occur during physical activity.