Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Multilingualism

Being bilingual, and living with somebody who is trilingual, I am a big proponent of the importance of learning foreign languages at school. The issue has raised its head again in the news recently, with the government promising a drive to get kids to do more foreign languages - though it baffles me why they are suggesting this now, when only a few years ago they changed the curriculum so that it isn't mandatory to do a foreign language GCSE.

There is an interesting article in the paper about it today, written (in very elegant English) by a Frenchwomen, which got me thinking a little more on why I think learning a foreign language is so important.

"The global culture we live in is a double-faced creature, part angel, part devil. It induces two sets of behaviour in world citizens: a greater openness and a new curiosity towards others, or the illusory and self-satisfied conviction that the world has come to them. The first group, embracing multilingualism, have learned that a better understanding of other cultures, based on mutual knowledge of each other's languages, can foster stronger business partnerships, richer cultural exchanges and lasting peace. The second, often found in the English-speaking world, are proud of their monolingualism, and have retreated into a fantasy world in which it seems everyone speaks their language."

The monolinguist's arguments are usually along the lines of "all the world speaks English, what's the point in learning another language?". In that respect, they have some sort of point, even it is a touch arrogant. Yet, to me, the main benefits of learning another language are not limited to the ability to converse in that language; rather, they are the enlightenment of realising that you aren't limited to a single method of expressing yourself linguistically*, and the appreciation of different cultures that can only be acquired by immersing yourself to the level where you have to use that culture's language.

At school I learned French to GCSE level, and went on two exchange visits to France, staying with French families. Being forced to speak French meant that I began to see the world a little bit through French eyes, and as a result I am a big fan of France, and the French people - not a view shared by many of my fellow Brits! But how many of them went on a French exchange? And if they didn't, would their prejudices against the French still exist if they had gone on an exchange?

The point I'm trying to make is that, even though I have forgotten much of my French now, I don't think for a second that learning the language was a waste of time. I learned far more than 'just another language'.

* For some time I've pondered the best way of describing this (the idea that there isn't always an equivalent translation) to an English monolingual, and the best example I've come up with is translation of the word 'Welsh':

Cymraeg = Welsh (the language e.g. "she speaks Welsh")
Cymreig = Welsh (something that is from Wales e.g. "a Welsh harp")
Cymry = Welsh (the people of Wales e.g. "the Welsh sing very well")

so;
the English can talk about English things in English;
but (to paraphrase)
the Cymry talk about Cymreig things in Cymraeg

1 comment:

Taumuon said...

Hey Alser!

Interesting post! As well as the other 'feel' of communicating, such as using declensions (which I'm finding the hardest part of learning Croatian), I wondered whether other languages enable you to 'think differently' (no reference to Apple).

That is, if a language is more rigid in structure, do you naturally think in a more rigid/structured way than a language that allows more ambiguities?

PS: your trip to the US looks amazing!