Monday, 16 September 2013

The Gift of Language;

Y Rhodd O Iaith
ο δώρο της γλώσσας

One of the great delights of social media is its potential for getting us to use more languages and to use them interchangeably. A member of our family has recently moved to Greece and I enjoy using my limited knowledge of classical Greek to try and decipher some of the things she posts. I've also recently discovered several Welsh speakers lurking in the English shadows - I had no idea the Vicar of Pateley Bridge (just up t'road from us in Nidderdale) spoke Welsh until it became clear through a chance Face Book exchange that we both had roots in North Wales. We've since been using Welsh and this is great for our fluency since neither of us has the chance to use it regularly. 

Back in the 1970's there were some good French Canadian studies which showed that speaking more than one language helped children considerably with their cognitive development. This is particularly significant if they become bi-literate as well as bilingual.Why is it that the English are so wedded to monolingualism? I read a Guardian article today by Josephine Livingstone, The Case for Language Learning here. Livingstone says 'for many reasons, commercial, diplomatic, intellectual, we need to wake up to the reality that monolingualism is bad for us.' Her article is actually about the value of learning a dead language. I studied classics for A level and did ancient Hebrew as part of a degree so I wouldn't argue with that. But I'm even keener on the value of exploring the living languages that are all around us. 

Almost all of us are likely to have been in a room, on a bus or a train or shared some space today with at least one person who was thinking in a language other than English. For some of us, that person was ourselves. We may not have realised it. You can't tell what language another person is thinking in and, if you are bilingual, you may not be immediately conscious of which language you yourself are thinking or even speaking in. Punjabi, Welsh, Urdu, Polish, Cantonese, Irish, Spanish, Hausa, French, Yoruba - I've heard all these spoken by people living in the part of North Yorkshire where we live. Yet it is common to find people regarding this as a threat rather than an opportunity.

What are the intrinsic benefits of bi- or multilingualism?

I attended a school where half the day was conducted in English and half in Welsh. I've always been so grateful to have had easy access to the literature of two cultures and the thought processes of two languages. I've also benefitted from that very non-English thing (it happens all over mainland Europe and Africa) of being quite happy to be part of a conversation where I might not understand every word, but I get the gist and can contribute. I've benefitted from early insight that, because things are expressed differently in different languages, the world can look quite radically different to people who are not of the same culture. Language, to a large degree, defines possibility. Speaking more than one widens the possibilities. For example, speaking two languages, one where gender is expressed in terms of masculine and feminine and the other where gender is expressed as masculine, feminine and neuter, poses questions about the philosophical and psychological categorisation of gender which I suppose I might not have asked, certainly not so soon, had I spoken only one language. In poetry, the common patterns of word order in a language have a huge effect on what's possible in terms of the juxtaposition of images and ideas, alliteration, rhythm and emphasis.

In one of the schools I regularly visited in Nottingham, 28 languages were spoken. The diversity of languages was a huge challenge for the staff. This is, in microcosm, the problem for English-only speakers. No one can learn 28 languages so which ones do you concentrate on? Well, I think the dawn of social media has made it much easier for us to cultivate a consistent interest in one or two languages. Simply to discipline yourself to read one article a day in another language will increase not only your linguistic ability but your cognitive agility immensely.  

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking, Janet.
    I recognise a lot of what you say from the experience of 15 years living & working in NW Uganda - where both in theological college (up to 9 different mother tongues represented by students), church (regularly 3 local languages + English) and in local communities multi-lingual was the norm. As a Brit I felt very inadequate at times; and even my A-level standard French was totally useless just over the border in Zaire/DRC as their French was utterly different!
    My kids grew up there for up to 15 years, and the elder two grew up in the village multi-lingual environment. I'm convinced this has had a major impact on their lives & development subsequently.
    As for Dad, the bishop actually banned me from formal language learning as the medium of instruction in schools & theological college was English and that was where I was spending most of my time. So I was - amongst other things - teaching NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew to people in English for whom English was often not even their 2nd language!
    But Christian fellowship, friendship and worship together made a big difference - and I too grew comfortable being part of conversations that could be in 2 or 3 languages and where I didn't "get" everything.