Ear for language – my thoughts on an exciting survey

A few weeks ago, I was asked to comment on the results of an interesting research that was conducted by Vervesearch, an international marketing agency in collaboration with GoCompare. They took 10 of the world’s languages that you can regularly hear spoken in the UK and tasked 1000 Britons with recognising them. The objective was to discover how good the Great British public are at identifying foreign languages.

Here’s to the test itself, please take it before you continue reading, it’s super exciting!

To summarise the results of the survey:

  • Young Scots got the best results in the country
  • Most Brits can only recognise 3 languages out of 10 in this test
  • Native English speakers performed significantly worse than those who had another language as their first language, 3.04 versus 4.20 respectively.
  • In the test, the more languages people studied or tried to learn in their life, the better they scored. The ones who learned one language scored 2.88/10 on average results when the ones who have learned four or more languages scored 4.15/10.
  • People who have lived outside of the UK performed better than those who have not. The ones who live outside the UK scored 3.49/10 on average and the ones who didn’t 2.93/10.
  • Brits who watch films in original versions or in another language tend to score better than the ones who watch everything in English.
  • Respondents who have studied a second language during their undergraduate program (bachelor) have scored the best, 3.70/10 on average.
  • Parents who know several languages scored better than parents who only speak one.

Here’s what I had to say:

I’m a linguist, and I speak German, Hungarian and English fluently. I also picked up a bit of conversational Spanish from close friends. I meet regularly language professionals of multiple languages, watch foreign films with English subtitles and I live in London where I hear loads of different languages spoken on the streets, in cabs, at events and just about everywhere. I’m exposed to all sorts of languages, constantly.

Yet, I’m somewhat disappointed with my score: 4 out of 10. I was expecting more from myself.

I would assume that I can tell Dutch from Polish, Turkish from Chinese, even without speaking a word of these languages. The trickiest part in this particular survey however was selecting the right answer out of four Germanic languages: Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Dutch. And then again, to differentiate between four Slavic languages such as Bulgarian, Polish, Russian and Czech. It’s a lot easier to distinguish between languages of different heritage, eg. Latin and Germanic languages, or Arabic and Slavic languages, but to identify languages of the same language family can prove to be extremely tricky even for the linguistically well-trained.

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So I wouldn’t be too hard on the Brits and judge their language skills based on this survey solely. But it does raise awareness to an important point: The UK’s language skills deficit. It is a threat to the country’s competitiveness, and it is costly for the nation.

What can language education do to make more people want to learn a language?

I think it’s important to educate people on the why: why it’s not only beneficial but at times crucial that they speak the language of their colleagues, partners and clients, how doors might open just by uttering a few words in the language of a potential client, how a person feels appreciated and touched when someone can talk to them in their own language. It’s all about being interested in the other person and establishing a more meaningful human connection that is vital in life, in our careers, and in business.


Learning a language might sound daunting first: it is indeed an investment both time-wise and in terms of money, whether we talk about school education, higher education and also learning as an adult, later in life.

I feel we should look at the issue from a more practical point of view.

Let’s be honest: no one wants to learn a foreign language. We want to speak the language, we want to understand, we want to be understood in situations we are most likely to encounter, and we want to have the confidence to actually use the language when we need to.

If school education keeps these constantly in mind when teaching our young, if training materials focus on a realistic and highly practical side of language use, and if learning a language later on in our corporate career is organised in an efficient, no-nonsense way, that saves precious time and money and I’m confident that the UK can tackle this language deficit issue head-on.

In my view, Britain is a very open-minded country that’s very accepting and welcoming towards different cultures and traditions. Being open and understanding is crucial to learn (even if only the vital basics of) a language successfully. With all these elements in place already, I think it really is possible to narrow the language skills gap, and that would help Britain to compete more successfully and thrive on a global stage.

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How many languages did you identify accurately? What was the most difficult question for you? What do you think about language education in the UK? What else could language teachers do in order to help future generations to prepare for an increasingly global and multilingual world?

Please leave a comment below and let us know.

Important: share your thoughts and ideas directly in the comments. Links to other posts, videos, etc. will be deleted as they come across as spammy.

Looking forward to hearing your voice on this one.

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