Monday, January 29, 2007

A, B, C....

Despite being a fervent proponent of multilingualism myself, I promise to try and mute the plethora of opinionated voices in me, in favor of a more dispassionate analysis on the very important subject of acquiring (foreign) language skills in our (post)modern times. Hence it is to be said -in lieu of an introductory comment- that responsibility for foreign language encouragement (or lack thereof) befalls upon many actors: politicians, academia/teachers, individuals all contribute through choice or decision. Conversely, anything from dogmatic views to budgetary issues to cultural streams within society can impact the popularity of languages and language-learning. The already heated debate becomes more contentious today as additional parameters become influential: a supranational phenomenon, globalization is one such example of a factor that shapes attitudes towards languages.

As the world and individual states experience interaction and interdependence at such an unprecedented level, some practical requirements must be met, the first being to successfully "communicate". How states choose to respond to the resurrection of the lingua franca concept [or to a handful of prevalent languages] does already -and will even more so in the coming years- affect economic, political and cultural decisions across as well as within states. In a debate on globalization and France in Le Figaro, Jacques Attali, the French political thinker cautions that global markets may bring about the end of languages if reason does not prevail and if languages are not sufficiently protected. Moreover, the superimposition of a single language can be disastrous to peace, security and more broadly stability, if, for example, the premises which bring about the dominance of the language cease to exist, are deemed threatening or unjustifiable or more broadly are rejected by some population. This is very important to observe as languages are not only tools of communication; they are also carriers of a culture and often become symbolism, perhaps unjustifiably so, of politics even ideologies.

For such reasons and many more, the trend today seems to favor promotion of multilingualism and cultural awareness based on an understanding that people can come "closer" and cooperate more efficiently if there are not linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Partly as a reaction to this phenomenon and to serious political criticism for the Iraq war, the United States has been encouraging its citizens to acquire foreign language skills as they are "intrinsic to the security and the interests of the country" as the 2006 National Security Strategy tells - following thus the honorable example of many other countries, most notably the Scandinavian states. In her bitter comment in the December 20th edition of The Guardian (republished in the January 28th edition of Kathimerini) Agnès Poirier chastises British snobbery of foreign languages arguing among others that monolingualism is a source of decay for the society and a threat to the English language (on the premise that language learning improves one's native language too) and a serious threat to democracy (as it creates xenophobia and hinders critical thinking).

Is learning many languages therefore the solution that humanity seeks? Unfortunately, for the world's most complex issues there is no panacea today, as there has never been one in the past. Peace, security and prosperity the perennial concerns of people have always depended on a number of factors; globalization only magnifies the scope of such concerns by showing how dependent (to one another) or vulnerable countries are. The ability to "communicate" solves only the logistical part of the equation. Adding to this the "cultural parameter" -which accompanies language learning- can take us a step further. But no more than that.

Save a few merchants and wanderers, the vast majority of people well into modern times would only speculate about other languages as they would spend most of their life in a ten mile radius from where they were born. Interaction with people of other cultures the way we experience it today is novel to us and the history of mankind more broadly. Languages offer us a magnificent tool to improve the quality of interaction with humans from different backgrounds; to view them however as tools only or as tools primarily would be to misunderstand their purpose and logic. To reduce language learning to the utilitarian value would be killing the language - period. A language is much more than communication; it is immersion in another culture, the past and present of a people; it has volume and texture, depth and shallowness.

Learning a language establishes lines of communication not only with the speakers but the world: it is not the vocabulary or the grammar, it is the "decomposition" and "reassembling" that the self undergoes in the process. For this reason, even a single (foreign) language has profound impact on its student. Naturally people will never be able to speak all the languages, not even "many languages" considering how many there are and how costly and time-consuming the process is. But the more people decide to explore this realm for the magic it offers -more than the practical application it unquestionably yields- the more rewarding the experience it is. True magic happens from time to time too, as when a Spaniard can understand a speaker of Portuguese and vice versa... OK, maybe with a few gestures and body movements, but this is all game, right?

References and Links:

The very interesting debate between Jacques Attali and Pascal Lamy on globalization: La mondialisation économique ne suffit pas

Agnès Poirier's article in English: The high road to decadence and in Greek: Η αλαζονεία της μιας και μόνης γλώσσας


AC Stranger said...

First of all Spanish and Portugees can understand each other but Portugeese can speak Spanish but the Spanish can not speak Portugeese. A small paradox.

As for the languages i agree, having lived in 4 countries and speaking equal languages i can say that languages can only have positive effects on anyone.
Maybe even make one's life more interesting and easier.

Pixie said...

Your article is of particular interest to me as I always supported the importance of learning new languages.I believe that the variety of languages that exist around the globe can enhance communication if we make an efford to understand another language other than our own.I am not in favor of monolinguism.As you beautifully describe it language is a tool that enable as not only to understand another human being but also to understand their culture and I trully support that people who learn a lot of languages become more open-minded to experience.Its like travelling in another country in a metaphorical sense.Even though my employment does not demand from me to learn new languages I always had the need to learn.I am finishing with my Spanish and I am starting Japanese.Learning languages is magic and this language diversity can only enrich human experience.

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