Multilingualism broadens our horizons and can act as an antidote against a toxic xenophobia.
While the UK is about to leave Europe (a publication has already come out at the time of publication), a recent survey has given the British the disadvantageous label of worst foreign language learners in Europe .
Although the survey is opinion-based and therefore subjective, it confirms a huge and overwhelming amount of previous studies. Although the United Kingdom is one of the most multicultural European societies, 3/5 of the population in England does not speak a foreign language , according to a survey covering the whole of Europe. On the rest of the continent, more than half of citizens speak at least one foreign language.
A past memory of mine confirms this unpleasant picture. I grew up in the UK. I was often considered a curiosity and sometimes even a prodigy for being able to speak Arabic fluently. As a boy, then, I noticed how the British and the Americans, except for an impressive polyglot minority, usually had more difficulties than any other nationality I know of learning another language. It doesn’t matter how long they studied.
Practicality and pragmatism
The reasons are innumerable. In part, it is pure and simple practicality and pragmatism.
Nowadays, English is not spoken only in the most remote areas of the earth and in many places foreigners have at least as good a command of it as native speakers.
An extraordinary example is given by Joseph Conrad, who learned to speak English fluently only at the age of twenty and wrote some of the most remarkable and memorable novels of modern English literature. Beyond the practical point of view, lies the cultural. Although the times have gone by when a British imperial official scolded the natives for not being able to speak English correctly, the fact that for centuries England boasted the world’s largest empire has created an intrinsic mentality that could be called linguistic privilege.
While the French have learned to tolerate their traditional linguistic chauvinism in recent decades and an ever-growing minority is learning foreign languages , the British have been relieved of it due to America’s continuing global influence. This preponderant culture of privileges and neglect has also spread to the school education system. When I was in school, my English classmates found language lessons too annoying and considered learning another language as useful as speaking it. Part of the problem was when and how languages were taught. We only started in middle school and teachers usually did little to show us the importance and beauty of learning a language , with the exception of a short lesson we had in French.
In the following years, the situation does not seem to change much, although the regular tragedy of the warnings of the unpleasant consequences of bankruptcy. Research from a few years ago shows that less than one in ten English students aged between 14 and 15 speak a first foreign language independently . Of course in a globalized economy, this fact has serious economic consequences. For example, in a multilingual state such as Belgium, which also houses the headquarters of the European Union, jobs usually require knowledge of at least three languages: German, 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 more than one language since he was born, is a living advertisement of the benefits of multilingualism . At less than seven years of age, Iskander already speaks four languages fluently which he learned with relative ease – it was child’s play for him – thanks to a premature and constant exposure. Although he sometimes has a tendency to mix languages confusingly, this has given him considerable perception and interest in languages and other cultures. When he comes across a language he doesn’t know, he often shows interest in wanting to learn it in the future.
Savoring the difference
Iskander also compares and contrasts the languages he knows and can literally savor the difference. Lately he has informed us that he prefers petits pois to besela (respectively the French and Arabic translation of peas). When he pointed out that they were the same, he informed us in no uncertain terms that “the French word sounds better”. Multilingualism above all made the difference from his point of view. Today Iskander plays with children of different cultures, religions, ethnicities and nationalities because he does not see their alleged differences. Tomorrow, I hope, he will become an adult aware of the preconceptions that divide us, but he will connect them with common points, uniting all of us.
Knowing one or more foreign languages allows us to appreciate the world with different languages , in fact. It can help broaden horizons, admire the dizzying differences of the world because despite our differences, we all share extraordinary similarities. Multilingualism of course does not protect us against xenophobia and bigotry but makes it more difficult . As fear for “the other” increases in the world, the importance of this cultural agility can only grow. In an incredibly problematic and controversial era like this, we need to draw on every foothold of harmony and empathy that we can gather.