An open book with a pair of sunglasses with blue lenses sitting on it.

How did you learn English?

Having English as a first language, as I do, is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, because it makes international communication so incredibly easy for me: through a quirk of history (a rather bloody, colonialist one – let’s not mince words), my first language is the one everybody else has to learn to talk to each other. I feel a certain pointless guilt about this, such that I always try to learn as much of the main local language as I can before I go somewhere new, because I don’t want to be that arrogant tourist who just automatically expects everyone to speak to them in perfect English. Of course, what tends to happen is that people are very nice about my efforts, modest as they are, and praise me much as you would extol the terrible efforts of a five-year-old when they do a “painting”. It’s very kind of them.

It may seem ungrateful to state that having English as a first language is also a curse. Allow me to clarify. The problem is that because I’m not forced to learn and use another language in my everyday life, fluency in another language is difficult to achieve. I’ve got close with French, but only after years and years of working on it and – not a coincidence, this – French is also the language I’ve had the most opportunities to practise.

I’ve studied other languages but not become fluent in any of them. However, the process has given me an insight into what it really takes to master a second language, and so I am always hugely impressed when people speak English as a second or third language really well. Especially when they’re young, since they’ve not had very much time to work on it, relatively speaking.

So I thought it would be interesting to do a short survey of a number of younger people who speak English very well as a second or third language, to see what they have to say about how they managed to pull off this quite remarkable (to me) feat. The participants range in age from 19 to 34 and come from a number of different countries and backgrounds.

What’s your first language and how did you come to start learning English?

Priscillia: My first language is French, the Canadian kind. In Quebec, all children learn English in school; back in my day they started us in the fourth grade, so around 9 years old.

Em: First language is Dutch, and my first contact with English was mostly the ol’ Nintendo DS games, mostly dialogue-heavy ones like Animal Crossing or Zelda, which would sometimes have me at the kitchen table with an EN–NL dictionary to translate dialogue or paragraphs from the strategy guides. That, and my mum watching some BBC shows while I was home (with English subs on), which was around about the same time. I must’ve been … 7 or so? Ish? I can’t say for certain but definitely below the age of 10.

Teo: I actually have two first languages: Danish and Croatian, both of which I learned at the same time growing up. My parents are from Denmark and Croatia respectively, and they still often communicate in English despite knowing each other’s languages. That’s part of how I learned to speak English – listening to my parents’ conversations. I also learned to speak English because my family travels a lot – usually to far-off places – and English was the way to communicate with the locals there. Part of the reason could also be attributed to playing video games, visiting video game forums and consumption of generally English media.

Tari: My first language is German, and my first official English lessons started in third grade (age 8–9). We did, however, have lessons that mostly consisted of games before that, to sort of ease us into learning English a little.

Flor: My first language is Spanish (Latin American, and Rioplatense if you want to be even more specific). I started learning English at around 3, with a programme my school had – went to the same school until I was 16, so that was a lot of English. For some reason I was one of the few that picked it up as quickly as I did, so I guess there was … something else there.

Hlín: My first language is Icelandic, and I started learning English formally in fifth grade when I was 9 (fall 1999). Around late 2000/early 2001, I also started to learn a lot more English in my free time, mainly through video games, the fourth Harry Potter book, which I heroically tried to make my way through with the aid of a dictionary larger than the book itself, and then in late 2001 with the very first internet community I joined.

Marina: My first language is German. I only really got into English when I was about 13 to 15 years old. We had it in school from third grade, and I seem to recall that I liked the teaching style in elementary, but it had very little structure and every school did it differently, so in secondary school we started at zero again. Ultimately, English class in elementary doesn’t help anybody. The following years we would have weekly vocabulary tests which I very much wasn’t good at. I didn’t really get into English again until in ninth grade, when I was 14½, and I went on a school-organized language trip to England for a week. Participating there really stopped it from feeling like a school-only subject and showed me where the language could actually get me.

From then on, I sought out English media more and more. Particularly, I remember getting into anime/manga the following year and I tried switching to English to see if it would stop feeling hard, and before I realized it, it did. But there have been a lot of other things that were probably no less important, and I wouldn’t be able to say what role each of them had. One thing I would really like to point out however is Discord and all of you guys [Discord is the online chat platform where all volunteers taking this survey were recruited], whom I’m talking to all the time, because it is the highest quality English I am exposed to, and in addition you’re always open to answering questions. So this has definitely been a cheat code of sorts in the past year and a half.

Julia: My first language is Polish, and I started learning English in primary school at the age of 6.

[Interviewer: Is it common for people in Poland to have a second language other than English? I’m guessing maybe Russian or German, for example.]

It is common to have a second language such as German, because many primary schools have it as the second language to English (mine didn’t, unfortunately). Nowadays Spanish and French are very popular in high schools too, but most Polish people focus on English entirely and treat the other languages more carelessly, as something to just pass and get over it.

It’s more common for younger people to speak better English, and this is because we started learning as kids, and the older generations had only Russian and German in schools. Many of them did not pursue the study of English later (some of them did, though, and can now speak pretty good English, but it’s rare). For example, both of my parents (age 43 and 48) had Russian in school and dad had Russian in college, and both of them never had a chance nor will do to actually study English. My dad regrets it now; he knows a word, phrase or two, he tries to learn but it’s not as effective as it would have been.

Do you think that was the right age to start learning English?

shot from above of child reading, surrounded by booksPriscillia: I think it might be a bit late, and the curriculum has changed it so that kids now start learning English in the first grade. It’s a good thing I believe, gives them a better chance to assimilate the new language, over a longer period at the very least. I remember kids around me struggling to learn any English, which doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem these days. Obviously, they are more exposed to it in this digital era, but combining that with earlier learning can only help.

[Interviewer: has there been a similar move in some areas of anglophone Canada to introduce youngsters in the first grade to French, or is this just a Quebec thing?]

Unfortunately I don’t know much about schooling in other provinces, but French doesn’t seem to be a big priority. You’re lucky to find an Anglo who speaks tolerable French who isn’t from a specific area (Maritimes, some parts of Alberta).

Em: I think it was quite alright, personally. Formal classes in the language didn’t happen for me till high school (11–12 or so) but I feel like that’s not necessarily a universal Dutch thing but specific to my grade school. I’m glad I started unconsciously learning the language before any of those proper lessons though; it gave me a head start and a very intuitive approach towards sentence structure and grammar that others had to learn the theory of from scratch.

Teo: I think there’s no such thing as starting too early. I only remember a few situations where I couldn’t understand what was being said, and I was pretty young at the time. By the time I started primary school I knew how to speak English fairly well already. Knowing another language is always a good thing.

Tari: I definitely think it was the right age. I just wish the quality of the lessons during my time in primary school had been better. By 6th grade (age 11–12), I couldn’t say much in English. I resorted to learning it primarily through listening to music in English or watching movies in English. Another big help were English-speaking content creators on platforms like YouTube or reading English fiction. That boosted both my vocabulary and confidence; I was pretty much fluent by age 16.

Flor: I do think starting at that age was a great idea. I now realise I never actually had to learn the language; it was always just there. Learning languages now is much harder (or, even, when I was 15), and I appreciate that we were exposed to it at such a young age.

Hlín: I think it was a pretty good age! I was old enough to already have a very clear grasp on my first language and be able to make a clear distinction between the two, without being too old to acquire it relatively easily.

[Interviewer: Do you prefer it when tourists try at least a little bit of Icelandic, or do you just find it awkward and would prefer them to speak English?]

To me, and I think most Icelanders from the impression I have, the thing is we never expect tourists to speak any Icelandic at all. It’s usually not the case and that’s just the normal, expected state of things. So rather than either wanting them to speak Icelandic to start with or being put off by it, tourists knowing some Icelandic tends to be a cool surprise! Imagine how you’d react to the prospect of someone, say, unexpectedly referencing your favourite TV show in conversation, and I think that’s a closer approximation to how I feel about tourists knowing some Icelandic – you really wouldn’t go into a conversation with a stranger wanting them to reference the show, but it’ll be cool if they do!

The most important thing in communication is for the participants to understand one another, of course, so if we’re trying to have a conversation communicating actual information, and your Icelandic is very wobbly, I would probably prefer to use English to get it across for easier mutual understanding. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try out your Icelandic if you know some! I will be psyched that you did, even if we wind up having to switch to English afterwards. (However, again, there is absolutely no reason to feel like you should learn some Icelandic to be able to do that before coming to Iceland – again, we just don’t expect that from anyone at all!)

One of my co-workers is a Polish immigrant, and we switch to English any time she needs to understand – so at any company meetings and in any Slack channels where she is present. We also write issues, code comments, GitHub code reviews, etc. in English, even though she’s not a programmer and doesn’t touch code – we have a Ukrainian contractor working on some of the code, and we might hire other programmers who don’t speak Icelandic in the future, who would need to be able to read and understand our code and code history.

the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík at night, lit up in purple

The Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík, where people speaking English are welcome. Here just because I like this photo.

A high proportion of retail workers are also recent immigrants, who variously don’t speak any Icelandic or only limited Icelandic. If I go out for lunch I can usually place a basic order in Icelandic (even someone who doesn’t understand much of the language will pick up the names of menu items quickly on the job), but there’s often a good chance I’ll be asked to switch to English if I need to ask for anything more complicated, or that they will speak to me in English if they need to ask me a follow-up question. (But of course, there are also many immigrants who have picked up enough Icelandic to not need that! I try to be careful not to pre-emptively switch to English on anyone if they don’t ask for it or look totally lost.)

As a fairly withdrawn programmer, I don’t really interact with tourists much day-to-day, so the pandemic didn’t impact my own exposure to English much – our immigrants still live here, still working the same jobs. But in summer 2020 I went with family on a boat tour in Stykkishólmur, and everyone on the boat that day was Icelandic, so the guide could speak Icelandic the whole time – I’d bet a lot of money that that never happened before the pandemic!

Marina: I think that learning a language should always be done as early as possible. It’s well known that small children have a much easier time at it than adolescents and adults. In Germany, if you don’t specifically have international friends, you don’t usually hear much of international media, because on all the main TV channels everything is translated – be it one sentence from the US president that was already fully paraphrased before, it will be spoken over in German, even if that inevitably changes something about the way it comes across.

Julia: I think it’s the best moment to start learning, because children are more likely to learn the basics and pronunciation. I’m thankful for having been able to start learning it so quickly.

What do you think is the most difficult aspect of the English language to master?

Priscillia: You won’t be surprised by this one: the irregular verbs. I remember spending whole evenings memorising a list of verbs: eat/ate, see/saw, meet/met, etc …

Em: Many people seem to struggle with irregular grammar and verb things, but I mostly struggled with [remembering the differences between] American and British English and number pronunciation – although I knew how the system worked, its 180° opposite from the Dutch way always throws me for a loop – spelling individual letters (the vowels specifically, the rest is fine, I can elaborate if you wish), and, because my learning was so intuitive, I struggled with the theory tied to the different tenses. To me those just came naturally and it’s like suddenly having to be aware of each part of moving your legs when walking, so to speak.

Teo: I’m not too sure – probably the word order, in certain situations. Most of my English learning woes came from spelling and learning grammar – mostly the tense names. I found it rather intuitive to create sentences that made sense, but I could hardly tell you which tense I used.

Tari: How punctuation works in English was never really taught to me, so to this day I just do what I want with it. Also syllables. In German I find distinguishing the syllables very easy, in English not so thinking, with his forefinger on his temple and looking upwards

Flor: I think it’s hard to get the hang of the “correct” pronunciation in some cases. Training the ear to understand different speakers is also difficult, because there are so many English speakers with distinct accents all over the world, but that might not be exclusive to English. Another thing I definitely struggle a lot with are prepositions and false friends. On the plus side, however, I find verb tenses and the word order in sentences pretty simple.

Hlín: English pronunciation is incredibly irregular and pronouncing a word you haven’t heard spoken aloud before involves a lot of guesswork. This is part of why I significantly prefer text communication in English to actually speaking it! Mumbling a word because I don’t know how to pronounce it and don’t want to confidently mispronounce it is the worst. Stresses in particular deeply confuse me in English! The way the stress in a word moves when you add a Latin-based suffix but stays when you add a Germanic suffix is incredibly obnoxious (PERsonal vs. personALity).

The other, subtler thing I’ve noticed took me a while when I’d otherwise become fairly fluent was actually which preposition is used where. English has a lot of phrasal verbs where putting particular prepositions after verbs makes them mean something entirely different, and other times you’ve just got phrases or idioms that use a particular one, sort of arbitrarily. In reading my writing from around 2004–2005, the occasional mistakes with prepositions are one of the main things that jump out.

Marina: The only thing I can think of right now is the distinction of usage between present progressive and simple present verbs. The way it’s been taught to me in school (for the most part) is that the present progressive is used for something you do in the moment whereas simple present is used for things you do regularly. But that’s not how it actually works. I usually just go by intuition and that doesn’t stick to the at-the-moment-vs-regular-activity, but even so I don’t always get it right, so I guess I just have to improve my intuition.

Julia: The various tenses and how to use them on more advanced levels of English, such as present perfect, past perfect, their continuous forms etc. especially when the learner’s first language has no more than three tenses (like Polish).

Is there anything you’ve found in the English language that you really love? A particular idiom, maybe, or just a way of expressing things?

Priscillia: I’m gonna start by saying I love being bilingual. It gives me a whole other dimension to express myself in. There are some things that just feel more right when said in one language or the other. There’s added nuance to my speech, my thoughts.

Teo: I find old English/Shakespearean ways of expressing oneself to be pretty amusing. Generally, the rich vocabulary of the English language makes it very fun to write with and read.

bust of William Shakespeare by sculptor John Michael Rysbrack

William approves of Teo’s opinion.

Tari: I would probably call it more of a strange fascination, but I love how certain foods are called “[blank] fingers” in English, I’m assuming simply because they are shaped like fingers.

Flor: We don’t really use sayings where I live, so I love random sayings in English. As for things that I love, I like the freedom that I feel the language gives me (freedom given by “slavery”, if you will … but being able to speak a language that most people will understand is quite freeing to me). On a lighter note, I love word combinations like “oopsie-daisy” or “willy-nilly” – Google tells me they’re apparently called flip-flop words, but I can’t find much on that.

Hlín: I find English very flexible and expressive. The grammar is very permissive, and the vocabulary is already such an amalgam of everything, so it’s super easy for neologisms to enter the language and feel like English, and the grammar is easy to play with a bit without it sounding nearly as bizarre as it would in Icelandic. I’m a big fan of internet lingo and how it’s evolved just in the time I’ve been using the internet. Things like the suffix -ception, based on the movie Inception, coming to mean anything that’s recursively nested, are delightful to me – and it’s the exact same phenomenon as the suffix -gate, based on Watergate, referring to a scandal! English is often frustrating, but these sorts of things really make me smile and enjoy expressing myself in English.

Marina: Usually what fascinates me about the English language is how simple it is, because I think it makes it more versatile than German. Most concepts can be expressed more simply in English and if you translate the same sentence from one into the other, it will usually be shorter in English. I don’t know why this is, but I’ll assume it has to do with the simpler grammar.

Julia: The easy way to express feelings, describe things. Sometimes I use English phrases because it describes my mood or what I think much better than my native language would.

Is there anything you can express better in English than in your first language?

Priscillia: Expressing surprise, or anger, or any of those strong emotions is always easier in French; I think our ways of swearing are a lot more satisfying, probably because I grew up with them. They just hold that power. As for English, I think it’s easier for me to explain feelings, probably because since I was a teenager, I’ve almost exclusively read books and seen movies in English. I’ll often slip into English with these kinds of topics, if my interlocutor is also bilingual, and when they’re not, I’ll struggle to say what I mean.

Teo: As a general rule, I am more comfortable with expressing myself in English, which I’d say is a bit concerning, given it’s my only non-native* language. That doesn’t mean that English is my preferred language for everything, though: Croatian offers me the most freedom in poetry, due to its inherent ability to retain meaning through sometimes quite drastic changes in word order.

[Interviewer: Can you explain why you feel more comfortable in English?]

I just find it comes easier. For example: even talking to my family in their respective native languages, I often add English idioms. It might have something to do with the fact that while living in Croatia, I couldn’t speak Danish on a “usual” Danish conversational level, with peers and such, and the same would go for Croatian since I’ve moved to Denmark. English has sort of always been there, as a bridging language, hence why I might prefer it.

[Interviewer: You say Croatian is great for poetry. What’s Danish great for?]

Well, Danish has very useful words. There are a lot of composite words that can mean a very specific thing. Also, adjectives can be appended to nouns, which is quite an annoyance when you need to hit a word count for a university essay. 😊

Tari: I would say science-related things. I work in life sciences and English is the main language so talking about science in English comes much more naturally to me.scientist, seated in a lab, looking into a microscope

Flor: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head (I’m sure there are plenty of things), but every once in a while, when I’m talking to someone, I’ll be forced to switch to English because the word I need doesn’t exist in Spanish, doesn’t have the same meaning I need, or I can’t think of the translation. Happens a lot with curse words.

Hlín: Oh, a ton of things. I think one of the things holding Icelandic back a bit in the modern day is the awkwardness of using straight loanwords, which makes it very difficult to talk about many concepts. I notice it a lot with video games in particular – a lot of things about games I just have no idea how to express in anything resembling passable Icelandic! Basic fundamental concepts like stats, Attack/Defence, etc., I just draw a total blank on. Other concepts might be reasonably easy to directly translate, but the translation sounds awkward or doesn’t really imply what the English original does. It’s just all in all difficult to even talk about it at all without sounding unbearably clumsy. General fantasy concepts from English-language fiction are also often hard to talk about in Icelandic – with an official translation at least you can use that, but these days a lot of people consume fiction in English, and without an official translation, nobody is going to know what you’re talking about even if you did attempt to translate the concept.

Marina: I feel like I’m giving the boring answer to everything here, but I’ll say it’s mostly technical/subject-specific things, because many topics are usually talked about in English nowadays, and never in German, that the terminology is just missing. So that’s when the English words are usually just adopted. That’s not surprising, but if I rarely ever talked about the topic in German and have never heard anyone do so either, I find myself stopping at every term trying to think of what’s the German way of referring to it. The other thing – although it partially falls under this – is LGBT+ things. But here it’s mainly that I’m not aware of any good non-binary language so far.

Julia: Oh so many things. Feelings are the best example, I think. Especially the bad ones; they are much clearer and easier to express in English.

Many thanks to all the interviewees for their kind agreement to participate in this survey.

*The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) has recently decided to stop using this term in its communications and to ask its authors not to use “native” and “non-native” in their writing. You can find an explanation of why this is here. Of course, Teo was happy to use it himself, so I wanted to quote his words accurately.

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