Thoughts on multilingualism

Having spent my childhood growing up in three different countries, all of which had different native languages, I think that multilingual ability is one of the most important abilities that one can have today. Us native English speakers have it easy by being able to fall back on the assumption that English is the lingua-franca of today and therefore, we don’t have to learn any other languages but everyone has to learn English. I find such a mindset offensive as so many languages are directly linked to other aspects of life such as culture and community and by whitewashing languages we are whitewashing years of tradition, culture and linguistic innovation.

To wholly show respect for someone when travelling isn’t to ask in louder and louder English ‘where is the bathroom?!’ but to be able to assimilate to the local culture and langue. Whenever I travel in a country where I don’t speak the native language I try to learn at least simple greetings, numbers and questions to at least try to be mindful of the local culture and traditions. Thanks to this I can count to ten, ask where the bathrooms are and say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in a vast array of languages which is excellent for trivia nights but also gives me the satisfaction of being able to say ‘shukraan’ (شكرا) to a local and seeing their face light up just because I bothered to learn and remember a simple word of thanks. For me, learning a langue is about giving back to these people, it is so easy to make someone’s day when you speak even a couple of words of their native language. It’s also about communication for me, I feel so much more comfortable expressing myself orally rather than on paper. Oral communication gives us the freedom to have conversations and experiences that otherwise would never have been possible otherwise. The joy of stumbling across a word in French or English that has no direct translation is like a window into the culture and minds of the people who speak that language.

Multilingualism is such an exciting thing and yet today it’s slowly giving way to sub-par but perceivably ‘better’ tools such as google translate. Learning a language, especially when young, opens up so many doors and literally changes your brain structure in favour of learning more languages and thus being able to communicate with more people. However, it’s also an art, a science that is being lost in favour of other pursuits. Today I feel like we need to weigh up the utility of learning complex algebra that will be rarely used in our day to day lives against the utility of language learning which is so often considered an optional pursuit that will add little to one’s development.

Below is a piece that I wrote on multilingualism and the teaching of multiple languages in infancy as part of a French exam.

L’enseignement précoce des langues a de l’importance sur notre vie et notre monde aujourd’hui pour beaucoup de raisons. Premièrement, c’est plus facile pour des jeunes enfants et des bébés d’apprendre une ou plusieurs langues qu’un adulte parce que les cerveaux des enfants sont encore en développement. Ainsi, apprendre plusieurs langues quand on est petit aidera leur développement psychologique, social et donnera une bonne maîtrise de communication avec d’autres. Toutes ces choses sont importantes dans un monde qui est de plus en plus multiculturel et globalisé – aujourd’hui ce n’est pas suffisant de connaître seulement une langue et le meilleur moment pour apprendre une langue est pendant l’enfance. Enfin, l’enseignement précoce des langues est important pour des enfants qui ont des parents qui ont des langues maternelles différentes et il y a un accroissement des familles comme ça à cause de la globalisation, ou qui habitent dans un pays comme la France où il y a des langues régionales ou un besoin pour apprendre d’autres langues mondiales. Pour conclure, c’est important et presque nécessaire pour l’enseignement précoce de langues dans nos vies aujourd’hui.


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