Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing.

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

Brittany, 1689. Voltaire describes how a trilingual Huron arrives on board a ship and is invited to supper by the town worthies. When asked which of his three languages he prefers, the man picks Huron. “Is it possible?” cried Miss Kerkabon. “I always thought French was the first of all languages, after Lower Breton.” “The company speculated a little on the multiplicity of languages; and all agreed that had it not been for the unfortunate affair of the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.”

Following in Voltaire’s footsteps, Dave Barry stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Beyond the satires about universal ethnocentrism lies an essential issue. What is at stake when we learn non-native languages and why should we bother to learn languages at all? Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding (which cites the above) explores these issues. This bulky (470-page) OECD publication is the fruit of close co‑operation with Harvard University Graduate School of Education where the man behind the project, our OECD colleague Bruno della Chiesa, also works.

The scope of the book is breathtaking: it explores language learning all across the globe, in countries ranging from Canada to Tanzania and from France to Kazakhstan. It goes well beyond (applied) linguistics to deal with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, neuroscience, music, philosophy and ethics. For those who think that OECD publications are dull, think again. This book is witty, irreverent – and thought provoking.

Why do we learn other languages? In our globalised world, learning languages is more crucial than ever. In fact it’s vital. For a job-seeker, mastering only one language could be a drawback. Writing in The Guardian, Will Hutton points out that “In the UK, the unemployment rate for language graduates is extremely low. The labour market values them. The economy needs more people who can speak foreign languages. This is a valuable skill, whether you’re part of the global scientific community or the world trade system.”

At the country level, mastering languages can also become a competitive advantage. Look at Canada for example. Its multicultural and bilingual policies seem to give the country a competitive edge.

The world’s seven billion people speak about six thousand languages – there are over 30 times as many languages as there are states – and speaking more than one language is quite normal, with around two-thirds of the world’s children raised as bilingual speakers. Yet, some countries tend to be more monolingual than others. Why is that? Could this possibly turn into a competitive disadvantage, even when the country’s language is today’s lingua franca, English? Could it be that power (both in its present and past – colonial – form) lures nations into believing that they (still) don’t need to speak foreign languages?

English is spoken as a first language by only 7% of the world’s inhabitants. It replaced Latin as the international tongue with the rise of the British Empire and US economic expansion. Could it be overtaken in turn by the language of today’s emerging economic powerhouse, China?

By examining what is at stake in language learning, Languages in a Global World goes to the heart of what is often the subject of intense ideological debate. Language is inseparable from cultural identity. Our motivation to learn languages is driven by values and beliefs.

Is one’s national identity soluble in foreign languages and cultures? The good (or bad?) thing about language learning is that it brings awareness – of oneself, of the other, local and global awareness. You may study the world in your native language (only). Or you may live it, think it and feel it as people who speak other languages do. The real thing. The music of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Musil etc. As Goethe said, “those who do not know other languages know nothing of their own”.

We can only understand the importance, richness and specificity of language and culture if we are familiar with other languages and cultures. Lorca’s amazing “duende” sounds more miraculous in Spanish than in any other language. And some (culturally resonant) words lose something when they are translated: “accountability”, “gobbledygook”,  “tartle” (Scottish), “saudade” (Portuguese), “laïcité” (French), “Torschlusspanik” (German), “hyggelig” (Danish), “mamihlapinatapei” (Yagan – Tierra del Fuego), “Iktsuarpok” (Inuit) etc.

Learning languages unveils new worlds. We not only learn how to speak but also how to relate to people in brand new cultural contexts – at subtle levels of perception, cognition and emotion. This gives a new perception of one’s self, of one’s identity and culture.  “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play” as Michael Hofmann argues.

Learning languages helps us expand our own being and be in tune with the world, or to put it another way, to truly address the other. In that respect, Languages in a Global World is reminiscent of Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility and ethics: our response to another’s face is language. It is the beginning of intelligibility and understanding. Language as an ethical commitment.

Could peace only be a few languages away? Language learning and global understanding go hand in hand. By not speaking other languages, we isolate and impoverish ourselves – economically and humanly. We lose a precious opportunity of becoming open and curious, receptive and creative. We don’t fulfil our potential and just shut up. “Drawing on my fine command of the (…) language, I said nothing.” As Robert Benchley said.

Useful links

OECD work on education

Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science

Guest author

5 comments to “Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)”

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  1. Andrew Weiler - 25/04/2012 Reply

    I agree completely with the sentiments of this article, however the sad case is that despite the fact that nearly all 7 billion learnt our first language to the level of our peers, very few of us learn a second language successfully once we hit our teens. So rather than expand our being, most of us end up believing that we are poor language learners, we have no talent and end up believing the excused to do with genes, age, etc etc. So we end up believing that we are less than whom we really are.

    There are of course many reasons why there is such a massive turnaround. Some is to do with developmental factors, some to do with personality factors but a large share of the “blame”, if we want to apportion it, must go to the schooling system that created artificial ways of learning languages that disempower us, rather than empower us.

    Give a person a fork to drink soup with and see how successful s/he will be! As long as they believe that is the only tool available, of course s/he will believe that s/he has no talent, etc etc.

    We need to pay more attention to our early years when we were all(well nearly successful and to the adults who become amazingly successful in their adult years in diverse areas of endeavour and learn from all that.

  2. Kathy Bramley - 26/04/2012 Reply

    Learning your national sign language or a simplified sign vocabulary or an alternative communication system – or several such as are in use in any good special school – can be beneficial too! Noisy workplaces and the everyday life of the various signing communities – not to mention the pub or coffee house – would be enhanced by signing being commonplace; and the cross-verbal understanding has been beneficial and emotional for lots of people who apparently had no need to learn sign! I wonder if it helps foreign language learning too?

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