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I remember being in Germany as an exchange student in 2006 and I was shocked to find that my that my exchange partners brother, being about eight years old and about half my age, knew more English than I knew German. My exchange partner himself was virtually fluent in English, although notably neither of his parents spoke the language. This got me thinking about why exactly do young Germans speak such good English? The answer soon came to me whilst I was sitting on a bus, in the form of an attractive emo punk-rock chick, listening to Greenday’s American Idiot loudly on her headphones. She probably spoke better English than Billy Joe Armstrong, I thought to myself, after all, Billy Joe Armstrong’s an American.
So, is it the huge political/economic/military/cultural entity that is the United States of America responsible for teaching foreigners English? It’s certainly part of the explanation, just look at Hollywood films with their huge budgets ranging from $100-200 million dollars, releasing dozens of films regularly each year to dominate the global mainstream film market. Whilst of course non-anglophone audiences will watch such films either dubbed or subtitled, it certainly makes learning English more attractive if you want to speak the same language as, say, Johnny Depp or Eric Bana. Another factor promoting Hollywood’s success is that America is part of a cultural network of English speaking countries, all former colonies of the British Empire. This means that these countries can draw upon each others shared history, values and talents in ways that other countries, like say Finland, Israel or South Korea, without colonial histories, can not.
For instance take Peter Jackson, a director from New Zealand who’s currently working on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film based on an a British novel that will be distributed by two American film studios. Because the populations of North America, Australasia and British Isles all speak English, have a common heritage and are all wealthy and high standard of living, the English language dominates the world, making it unavoidable to everyone.
Which is a bit of a shame really. When was the last time you watched a foreign language film? More people have seen Hollywood’s cash cows like Twilight and the Transformer films than have seen foreign films of actual artistic merit such as Pans Labyrinth, REC, Das Boot or Ghost in a Shell. This means that there isn’t much incentive, nor opportunity us soap and sitcom loving students to learn about a foreign language or culture. As Britons, our entertainment needs are broadly fulfilled by a steady diet of Hollywood movies, the occasional British film, and plenty of BBC and ITV programs. Meaning that, sadly, the entertainment world outside the English language is an unknown, alien realm were only elitist hipsters and animé nerds dare venture.
The trouble is, this means as a culture we risk becoming increasingly self-absorbed and ignorant of other people’s cultures, because we only typically view entertainment that’s made by us or the Americans. The young Germans with whom I socialised with all those years ago could fully enjoy both German and English language entertainment, unlike my fellow pupils, as we were largely confined only to the latter.
Fortunately, most foreign works of entertainment are translatable into English, and you don’t necessary need to understand lyrics to appreciate a non-English song either. With a bit of digging, watching foreign films, listening to foreign music and playing foreign video games gives you a more varied cultural perspective, allowing you to enjoy a vast new world of artistic themes and ideas that those who are content to be spoon fed entertainment by their TV will never experience.