Why Learn English
Jan 17, 2015

So I’ve been quite quiet since my last post here almost a year ago. I’ve actually drafted quiet a few since, but none of them made it to the site for various reasons. Today I all of a sudden really, really want to put something here, so I picked one from those drafts, did some light editing, and here we go. :)

“How can you not get tired of learning English?”

A friend asked last night while we were having Macau Doulao. “Don’t you get frustrated that even though you study your ass off, your English can’t even be as good as that of a high school student from the US or another English-speaking country1?” he continued, “Don’t you get tired of spending thousands of hours on learning something that millions of people born knowing? And plus if you want to watch a TV series or read a book that’s in English, why not just simply wait for the translated version to come out.”

Exactly. Why not?

I couldn’t give my friend a satisfying answer immediately, but here is my reasoning after I thought about it a little bit more.

Well, the answer is simple: English happens to be the language spoken by people from different areas of the world. I remembered an story I learned in one Chinese class in middle school. It was La Dernière Classe (The Last Class) by Alphonse Daudet. The story was about the last French class in a small French town, as the Prussians would soon take the town and there would be no more French class allowed. In the story, M. Hamel, the teacher, told little Frantz, the student and the main character, to never forgot French because language was the key to a culture. This is exactly what English is now. On so many levels, English is the key to the culture of the world.

Millions of people speak English. When you know the language that is spoken by millions of people, you get the freedom of confirming information by yourself instead of doubting if the translator did a good job. You get the freedom of talking to anyone you want to as long as that person is also one of those millions. You get the freedom of voicing to the world without depending on someone else to translate for you. Admittedly, when speak English, I can’t construct my sentences with eight adjectives and six adverbs, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use it to tell the others and to tell the world what I think. I can’t choose verbs as a wordsmith does, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell a beautiful and touching story about eat, pray, or love2. You get the chance of dating that cute girl from Czech Republic because you like each other and you both speak a little English. You get the chance to talk to that Indonesian guy who sat next to you on a flight about that grumpy cat picture from last night because you both speak a little English. You get the chance to discuss how big a part Matthew McConaughey’s thick accent plays in True Detective with people (well, or dog, if you have to) on the internet because you all speak a little English.

So no, I really don’t. I don’t get tired of learning English. I don’t get frustrated by the fact that my English might never be as good as a native speaker’s no matter how hard I try.3 But learning English is not about mastering. It’s also not about not valuing one’s own language. Not even close. It’s about a great communication tool. It’s about a language that is spoken by people all over the world. That language happens to be English.

  1. To be fair, this might not be the case for people who speak a Romance language as their native language. [return]
  2. The name popped up in my head and seemed fit, so I shamelessly borrowed it, though I have to admit that I have no idea what the book is about. [return]
  3. Realizing that did hurt a little… [return]