Multilingualism: The power of Babel

By Khaled Diab

Speaking foreign languages broadens our horizons and can act as an antidote against toxic .

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Wednesday 2 November 2016

As the United Kingdom heads for the EU exit, a recent survey bestowed upon Brits the unenviable distinction of being the worst at foreign languages in Europe.

Although this survey is based on perceptions and is, hence, subjective, it does confirm an enormous and damning body of previous research. Despite the being one of the most multicultural societies in Europe, three-fifths of people in Britain cannot speak a foreign language, according to a Europe-wide survey. In the rest of Europe, more than half of citizens speak at least one foreign language.

This dire picture is backed up by anecdotal evidence. When growing up in the UK, I was often regarded as a curiosity, and sometimes even a marvel, for being able to be speak Arabic fluently. In later life, I have noticed how Brits and Americans, with the exception of an impressively polyglottic minority, usually have the greatest difficulty of any nationality I know in acquiring another language, no matter how desperately they want to.

The reasons for this are myriad. Part of it is simple practicality and pragmatism. In the contemporary world, it is a rare corner of the globe where nobody speaks English and in many places have a command of English that is at least as good as native speakers. One of the most extraordinary examples of this was Joseph Conrad, who only learnt to speak English fluently in his 20s, yet still managed to write some of the most striking and memorable fiction in modern English literature.

Beyond the practical, there is also the cultural.  Although the days of a British imperial officer berating the natives for not being able to speak English “properly” are long gone, the fact that Britain had the largest empire in the world for centuries has created an intrinsic of what you might call linguistic privilege. While the have learnt in recent decades to swallow their traditional linguistic chauvinism and a growing minority is embracing foreign languages, the British have been cushioned from this by America's continued global dominance.

This cavalier culture of privilege and neglect permeate the education system. When I was at school, most of my English schoolmates found foreign language classes to be too much hassle and considered learning another language to be about as useful as speaking in tongues.

Part of the problem was when and how languages were taught. We only started in secondary school and teachers generally made little effort to show us the relevance and beauty of learning a language, with the exception of one brief immersion day out we had in French.

Over the ensuing years, the situation does not seem to have altered much, despite the regular doom-laden warnings of the dire consequences of failure. Fewer than one in ten English pupils aged 14-15 can use their first foreign language independently, research uncovered a few years ago.

Of course, in the globalised , this has serious economic ramifications. For instance, in multilingual , which also houses the headquarters of the , job postings routinely ask for competence in at least three languages: Dutch, French and English.

But there is an equally important social and cultural component. Our son, who has had the great fortune of being exposed to multiple languages since before he was born, is a walking advertisement for the benefits of . Not yet seven and Iskander is already fluent in four languages, which he has acquired with relative ease – he's made it child's play – due to early and constant exposure.

Despite Iskander's tendency sometimes to mix tongues confusingly, this has given him a remarkable feel for and interest in languages and other cultures. When he is exposed to a language he doesn't know, he often expresses an interest in learning it in the future.

Iskander also compares and contrasts the languages he knows, and can quite literally taste the difference. Recently, he told us that he preferred petits pois to besela (French and Arabic for “peas”). When we pointed out that they were the same thing, he informed us in no uncertain terms that “the French word tastes nicer”.

But above all, multilingualism has made words of difference to his worldview. Today, he plays with of different cultures, religions, races and nationalities, but is blind to their supposed differences. Tomorrow, he will hopefully grow into an adult who may be aware of the constructed differences dividing us but who will bridge them with the commonalities uniting us.

Knowing one or more foreign languages enables you to savour the world with different tongues. It can help broaden your horizons, make you appreciate the dizzying diversity of the world, while driving home that, despite our differences, we share many remarkable similarities.

Naturally, multilingualism does not inoculate against xenophobia and bigotry, but it makes it harder. As fear of the “other” rises around the world, the importance of this cultural agility is only set to grow. In these increasingly troubled, divisive times, we need to tap into every ounce of sympathy and empathy we can muster.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 October 2016.

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