In his blog on tennis players and language proficiency, http://www.jeromejerome.fr/en/Blog/tennis-and-languages, Jérôme Osselaer cited Novak Djokovic in regards to the reasons for his knowing so many languages as saying that he understood that Serbian is a minor language. This polyglot was in strong contrast with most other players, who only know their own native tongue. This comparison begs the question of why certain people learn many languages.
Let’s start with the assumption that, aside from some “weirdos” who like learning another tongue for its own sake, most people learn what they need to learn, i.e. necessity is the main motivation for actually learning something. In support of this hypothesis, go to a country speaking an exotic language, such as Iceland, Finland, and Israel, the level of English in the street is quite good. The average person is rather proficient in conducting a standard conversion in at least one foreign language, albeit with a strong accent and occasionally faulty grammar. The example of German is interesting since English is highly emphasized in Germany, with even some job interviews being conducted in English. This tendency may be explained by the fact that, outside of Austria and parts of Switzerland, German is not the first language in any other country as well as the bad connotation the German language had/has with the older generation. In Switzerland, the home of another polyglot tennis player, Rodger Federer, it is quite useful to speak at least three languages given the linguistic diversity of this physically small country. On the same level, Spanish proficiency is required in many jobs in the US states adjoining the Mexican border, encouraging a wide knowledge of that language.
By contrast, visit a medium sized city in any of the countries speaking a prevalent first language such as English, Spanish or French, the difference between studying and knowing is striking. Most people cannot give directions in a foreign language. Of course, the reasons for this ignorance vary. In some cases, such as in much of the United States, the assumption is that everybody knows English. Therefore, learning a foreign language is superfluous. In poor countries, most of the population does not have the income to travel abroad, in fact rendering a foreign language superfluous for travel but not business purposes. Some countries have extremely poor education systems, such as France, increasing the gap between learning and using. Finally, some countries have been politically isolated, with active discouragement of foreign languages, as is the case of parts of Eastern Europe. In Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, relatively few people over the age of 40 understand English (or choose not to understand Russian). In these places, the mother tongue is considered all that is necessary.
Younger computer users quite interestingly may have a solid reading knowledge of English due to the latter’s status as the lingua franca of the Internet. It is unclear how this comprehension translated into speaking ability. Yet, it is clear that the need to understand English strongly motivates this group to learn English, even in a non-systematic manner.
So, imploring people to learn a foreign language is not very effective. Linking the world, physically or virtually, seems to provide the “reality” they need to actually go out and learn it.