Originally published by Ex Penguin
When I was becoming a human, I took to the language learning element like a duck to water (excuse the bird pun). I progressed through my English classes very rapidly, and my mentor suggested that I have a go at learning another language, seeing as I appeared to possess a skill in that area. I chose Italian – in the early years, my Saturday nights indoors watching Inspector Montalbano on BBC4 as I waited for my feathers to shed ignited a passion for the sound – yet my mentor was quick to scoff at my choice.
“Learn Spanish,” he said. “It is the gateway to South America. If you learn Italian, you can only go to Italy.”
Frankly, Mr, I can go wherever I like, I thought, in the knowledge that – as a fledgling Italian speaker – key words, frantic pointing and GPS were the currency of the modern traveller. I was tickled by the idea of being constrained each spring to closing my eyes and selecting an arbitrary location on a map of Italy as a way of choosing my next holiday (not Rimini again).
But what struck me more than my mentor’s denigration of Italian was the confidence with which he judged my motivations; clearly of the view that the yardstick for a language’s utility is the number of countries in which it is spoken, he assumed I was operating within the same narrow frame of reference as him.
He was wrong. I absolutely concede that learning a language like Spanish or Arabic allows you to communicate in a far wider range of countries – and within close proximity to one another, should you be planning a regional excursion – than Italian. And if you choose to work for an international company, learning a more widely-spoken language certainly renders you a more attractive candidate than someone who only speaks, say, Faroese. Yet to regard the value of languages through this prism alone is to do it a gross disservice.
As someone who was privileged enough to be able to choose the languages I wanted to learn, I had to take account of the fact that my opting to learn Italian was done on the basis of self interest. Self interest, however, can be a broad concept, and can be tailored to accommodate the interests of others. Should we simply learn the languages that get us to the most countries, and thereby curtail our true interests and cut ourselves off from those with whom we really want to communicate, whose stories we really want to – and should – probe? I would say absolutely not. When challenged by my mentor, I realised that the benefits of learning a language can far transcend the number of stamps on one’s passport.
If nothing else, it can give you a sounder understanding of your own language. Should that language be English, a knowledge of Italian, French, German, Greek, Arabic, Norse (I could go on) would give you an insight into your mother tongue’s development, as well as a roster of more immediate skills, such as deciphering the meaning of unknown words when time is of the essence.
On a more serious note, in the aftermath of an election in which UKIP received almost four million votes, and the Home Secretary is willing to have the UK avoid having to to resettle migrants that have recently crossed the Mediterranean, the English – rather than looking inwards – are duty-bound to take stock of how other nations have shaped their heritage. Languages would serve as an apt starting point for this.
Indeed, Europeans are living in a time of great migration that is seeing new communities – and with them, new languages – develop in their countries. A friend of mine was recently extolling the benefits of learning Romanian in the hope that the housing department of the local council would snap her up. Good for her. But once again, learning the language of novel communities can take us so far beyond what that language can do for us; if we can get to know people on their terms and take an interest in their background and their journey, we can foster a culture of acceptance and support them to settle into an unfamiliar country.
Finally, learning languages, like learning a new sport or skill, helps the learner to master discipline, self-motivation, resourcefulness and confidence; speaking to someone in their native tongue can be an unnerving experience when you’re first starting out.
Of course, the harbinger of a nation of language learners will be exemplary teaching in schools, as well as a continued effort on the part of teachers to remind pupils why languages can be so important. For those who shirked languages at school, affordable and varied evening courses must be the order of the day; this way, the option of looking outward at a time of a worryingly regressive search for identity is open to all.