I was recently directed to a segment of the MailOnline’s website, RightMinds, and let’s just say that I was pretty disappointed by what I read. David Thomas, a journalist and author with a multi-lingual background argues that the 380,000 students in England who chose not to learn a foreign language are being sensible (it gets worse) because English is the second language of 85 per cent of Europeans.
This argument practically gives way to the idea that students in this country should be lazy; ‘Well they’re already doing it so we don’t have to.’ But the joke is not on them, it is on us. It is on those who truly believe that simply because others are learning our language that we should make no effort to learn another.
I struggle to understand the argument in any sense, especially as the journalist essentially nullifies his argument further on in his article by saying that due to writing books set in Germany, he now has “a tiny smattering of German, too”. When writing a book, you conduct detailed research on the area it will be set in, but learning any part of the language is, arguably, unnecessary especially if nearly everyone you’re working with speaks English anyway.
Regardless, Thomas continues to argue that learning a language is handy for proving on holiday “that you’re more sophisticated than the rest of the tourist herd.” What’s more, Thomas claims, “there’s absolutely no need to learn any one particular language unless you’ve got a specific professional use for it.”
Both of these arguments, however, have tremendous problems attached to them, the main one resting on the presumption that people learn languages for the sole purpose of furthering their careers. This cannot be blamed on Thomas, though, but rather an increasing sentiment in society. Whoever has seen Avenue Q may recall a song entitled ‘What do you Do with a B.A. in English?’, a question often asked by parents to students wanting to partake in degrees in the arts and humanities. The concern is that such degrees do not give skills required to specific jobs but, rather, are simply chosen out of intellectual curiosity. Yet rather than descrying students for reading such degrees, the smaller issue is that we need to recognise that all degrees have value and equip students with transferrable skills.
The bigger, and far more important issue, is that we should not be criticising intellectual curiosity but instead encouraging it. Students who learn languages (if you can tell, I am included in this bracket) seldom in my opinion do so to appear more sophisticated. Rather, we generally learn languages because they gauge our interest.
The other major reason people learn languages is to be able to speak to more people and learn more about them. The point Thomas makes in his article is that there are so many different languages that it is not worth the effort. That languages are plentiful, however, does not mean that we should place no effort in attempting to learn any. Instead, we should learn those that take our fancy, and the fact that we can use languages in a professional environment works as a bonus.
So why do I think that learning a language is just so important? On a personal level, since childhood, I was introduced to the idea of learning new languages; I learnt basic Arabic at my Sunday School, and prior to this, having lived in Tanzania for two years, the residue of very basic Swahili resides within. I have also always spoken to my grandmother in Kutchi, a language that originated in the relatively small Indian region of Kutch, and started learning French at school from the age of eight.
What I have always been interested in is talking to people in different countries in their language. This is not for the ridiculous idea of wanting to appear more sophisticated, but more about increasing my knowledge base. I have always sought to learn more about different people and their respective cultures. People have a compelling story to tell and for me to be able to learn about theirs is deeply fascinating.
To give but one example of learning about a culture, during a trip to Syria, a friend and I decided to take a two-day trip to Beirut. Once in the city, we took a taxi trip to the hotel and having realised how short our distance was – and how expensive the trip was relative to taxi fares in Syria – we asked the taxi driver why. His answer was proud, defiant and a little bit arrogant. But, most of all, it was in a language we could connect with and appreciate thanks to our learning. “Beirut is the most expensive city in the Middle East, don’t you know?” he declared in Arabic.
While this may be a small example, there is a lot of knowledge to be taken from it. The number of captivating conversations I have been able to have with people because I can partially speak their language, and they can’t speak English, is remarkable. You can learn so much from simply taking the time to speak to an individual. My only regret is not learning more languages when I was younger.
Written for The Platform.