Beyond Babel: Linguistic and intercultural skills for tomorrow

I don't know what you mean
I don’t know what you mean

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing. Tonight, the OECD is hosting a conference on how multilingualism can improve communication by enriching thought.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, Wittgenstein said. This limit holds for English, the world’s lingua franca. In 2006, the British Council warned that “monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage (…) in global companies”.

The world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting, and so is its linguistic landscape, as the OECD’s Trends Shaping Education points out: “English was long the dominant language of the Internet, but that is changing. There are now over 250 languages represented on the Internet, with English, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish making up the top five.”.

Mandarin now is the most widely spoken language in the world, followed by English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French. The relative number of English native speakers will decrease whereas Spanish, Hindi and Arabic will soar. The number of non-native English speakers will overtake that of native speakers over the next century.

Androulla Vassiliou, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth thinks that languages can help us out of the crisis. She stresses that Europeans need better language skills to answer labour markets’ needs. In 2011, only 42% of European 15-year-olds were competent in their first foreign language, with huge variations between, say, Sweden (82%) and Britain (9%).

In a context of increasing global competition, language skills are becoming crucial. A survey of SMEs found that a significant amount of business is being lost because of inadequate language skills. Across the sample of nearly 2000 businesses, 11% of respondents had lost a contract as a result of lack of language skills. Contracts worth in total between €8 million and €13.5 million were lost by 37 businesses, while a further 54 businesses missed potential contracts worth between €16.5 million and €25.3 million. SMEs which have a language strategy achieve 44% more export sales than those which don’t.

Languages do not only matter for SMEs. In March 2006, Amazon announced it would move its European customer service centre from the UK to Ireland to take advantage of better language skills. More generally, managing cultural diversity and linguistic complexity can be a critical asset for large companies. Large firms which have no language strategy tend to fail to deal with day-to-day communication problems according to the ELAN report. The cost of language barriers was quantified as between 15%-22% in terms of tariff equivalents. Other estimates are more modest and obviously vary across sectors.

 In 2007, Languages in crisis: A rescue plan for Australia identified the lack of language skills as a risk to the Australian economy. “For our nation to continue to prosper we must enhance our links with the world – we do that by improving our cultural understanding, our language skills.” While the Asian region represented 70% of Australia’s largest export markets, fewer than 3% of Australian university students studied an Asian language. Language studies in Australia had simply collapsed since the 60s.  And Australia is hardly the only country where language programmes were hit by budget cuts.

Do our education systems “provide students with the necessary outlook and skills, including language skills, for successful international cooperation” as Trends Shaping Education asks? Isn’t higher education also supposed to help us understand what is strange and foreign? David Lammy argued that a university without modern languages is “a university that has lost much of its ability to look outwards – a university without universality, if you like”. This is also about remaining alert as a society. To paraphrase Chomsky, “if a culture retreats into a circle of comfortable and reinforcing language (…), then it will cut itself off from the creative energies that are its life source” – and from the world.

Chomsky also reminds us that linguistic ability does not consist of learning specific responses to specific situations. It is not mere performance, it is competence. In dialogue, Chomsky argues, one should not seek victory, but rather creative openness. In Language and creativity, he revisits the 1961 Cuban missile crisis as a good example of creative interchange. Openness instead of polarization. Kennedy said at the time: “if anybody is around to write after this, (…) they are going to understand that we made every effort (…) to give our adversary room to move”.

Gusdorf’s approach is similar to Chomsky’s: in language, we seek ourselves and others. Winning and refutation can be put aside and reciprocity, mutual enhancement, the enrichment of ideas and persons become the goal. As Finnish author Samuli Paronen puts it: “real winners do not compete”. It is interesting to note that despite doing so well in the PISA tests, the Finns never aimed to have (one of) the world’s best education system(s). Something they certainly did was to learn from others and enhance cooperative learning. 

The Finns have also proved particularly creative and innovative. Over the past few years, research on (potential) links between language learning and 21st century skills (such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration or communication) has flourished. In Multilingualism and creativity, Kharkhurin argues that multilingualism is a facilitator of one’s creative potential.

A year ago, the OECD published a wonderful book called Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding. Looking at how the world is going, this book seems more relevant than ever. Its praise of diversity is reminiscent of Segalen’s  Advice to the Good Traveller:

“A town at the end of the road & a road extending
a town: do not choose one or the other, but
one & the other by turns. (…)
Beware of choosing a refuge. (…)
Thus, without stopping or stumbling, without
halter & without stable,
you will attain, friend, not
the marsh of immortal joys,
But the intoxicating eddies of the great river


Insights podcast on multilingualism with Bruno della Chiesa

Bruno della Chiesa was the soul of Languages in a Global World. Hear him discussing the relation between multilingualism and ageism, sexism, imperialism and much more in French, with Anne-Lise Prigent, or in English with Patrick Love.

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things) is an Insights blog article on Languages in a Global World

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7 comments to “Beyond Babel: Linguistic and intercultural skills for tomorrow”

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  1. Richard Michie - 15/04/2013 Reply

    It’s long been my view that to prosper on a worldwide scale people should embrace languages. Lots of UK companies are now waking up to this fact, I just hope it’s not too late.

  2. Bill Chapman - 15/04/2013 Reply

    There is curiously no mention here of Esperanto as a method of reaching “Beyond Babel”. For well over a century ordinary people in scores of countries have chosen to learn and use this planned international tongue to enjoy the “intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity”.

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