Seeing the world through new tongues

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Being monolingual can be limiting, so why not learn another language and get a new perspective on the world?

Monday 7 June 2010

Language is a great liberator. It enables us not only to walk the walk, but also to talk the talk. However, as much as it empowers us to articulate our thoughts, it can also shape the way we think or even confine us within the boundaries, however broad they may be, of its vocabulary, syntax and grammar, according to the latest research.

To illustrate: some languages lack a clear distinction between nouns and verbs. Others count differently – they may have a plural form meaning “of unexpected number” or a dual form. Other languages possess no past tense. Certain languages capture in a single word what others can only do in a longer phrase. Examples include “bling” in English or the bizarre “rawa-dawa” in Mundari, which apparently means “the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible and no one is there to witness it” – now put that into a sentence!

It is said that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but what if it had no name? Well, we would still be able to see and smell it but may not be able to say it. After all, the absence of a word or grammatical form is not necessarily evidence of absence. For instance, a non-Mundari waiter may feel “rawa-dawa” at, say, spitting in an annoying customer’s salad, but would have no handy way of expressing it. 

One implication of this emerging line of research is that each language offers a unique window on the world and, so, each time a language dies – as is occurring increasingly frequently – a unique perspective perishes with it. That goes some way to explaining why so many societies exert efforts to preserve their languages against the onslaught of globalisation, and why language itself can be an issue for conflict, as demonstrated in places such as Belgium and Canada.

Another implication is that learning more than one language provides you with different ways of seeing or interacting with the world, a benefit that is often overlooked in monolingual societies such as the UK. For example, the multilingualism of Britain’s new deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg – in addition to his multicultural background – may partly explain his greater openness to Europe and the outside world. Of course, this has also been used as a stick with which to beat him by those who feel threatened by anything vaguely foreign.

In my own experience, I notice a number of both obvious and subtle ways in which language colours my outlook. Take humour. In English, the ambiguity and multiple meanings of the ubiquitous phrasal verb – the bane of foreign learners of the language – make it an ideal tool for making jokes and suggestive innuendo. In Arabic, which does not really have phrasal verbs, humour often hinges on the language’s dependence on the three-letter roots from which most words can be derived, paving the way for clever wordplays.

More importantly, by reflecting the cultures in which they evolved, languages are the key to gaining first-hand access to a society’s people, way of thought, literature, ideas, values, history and traditions – although more understanding does not always imply greater sympathy or communication. On a personal level, I feel that my English-Arabic bilingualism has enabled me to gain a bicultural or even multicultural perspective that would have been difficult to acquire otherwise.

For me, Arabic and English were largely fortunate accidents of upbringing. Moving to Belgium has rammed home to me the increased difficulty of acquiring a language with age. Although my Dutch has reached a high level of competence, I still make mistakes and my accent will never sound native. And I’m not alone. One of the masters of English writing, Joseph Conrad, never lost his thick Polish accent.

Although my bilingualism was eye-catching in Egypt and the UK, here, in Belgium, speaking three and a bit languages hardly raises an eyebrow. I am in constant awe at polyglots such as my wife who can communicate effortlessly in half a dozen languages and even understand related languages they don’t know.

Naturally, we want to pass on the gift of language to our son, not only to enable him to deal with both sides of his family and integrate into his native cultures, but also to help him become a global citizen who is at home in the world.

Given that childhood acquisition is far easier and more effective than adult learning, we’ve decided to start early. Although our six-month-old hasn’t learnt to speak yet, we are already working on raising him trilingually by exposing him to his mother tongue (Dutch), his father tongue (Arabic) and his family tongue (English).

This may sound horrifying, but is it any more difficult than learning just one? Acquiring a language for a baby, as I am learning, is a task of mind-boggling proportions: the infant must learn to distinguish meaningful sounds from superfluous noise, identify syllables and then words, crack the code of meaning, and gradually acquire the skill to combine words into sentences and longer texts.

But children have an innate ability to do this – and learning two or three languages is almost as much child’s play as learning one, most linguists agree, as long as the child is exposed to the languages constantly and consistently and in a natural fashion. There is also mounting evidence that bi- or multilingualism helps boost a child’s cognitive abilities, academic performance and career prospects in later life.

Naturally, not everyone is fortunate enough to be immersed in another language from an early age so as to reach or approach native speaker levels. But even imperfect knowledge of a language acquired in adulthood is useful and interesting.

As Friedrich Nietzsche once put it: “One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway.”

Poll: Do you speak foreign? Do you think that learning other languages is important? Vote here

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 4 June 2010. Read the related discussion.

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 Posted by at 09:44
  • Marilyn

    I speak conversation Spanish, hehe. I think it’s important for people to be bilingual, at least. I hear you get paid more for it too. 😛

    Via Sodahead

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