Do you remember learning a foreign language at school? Sit up straight at the back, now. I still have nightmares. I can recall the dread of being picked on to stand up and conjugate verbs. I can’t say that I enjoyed the whole experience.
Fortunately, language learning in schools has come a long way since then. It is much more closely linked to its usefulness and real-life application (no more ‘pen of my aunt’ stuff). However, with the rise of online translation tools and apps, foreign language learning is perceived, by some, as unnecessary. I think that would be a terrible shame.
According to the BBC, there are up to 7,000 different languages in the world.
Employers are keener then ever to employ those who can speak a second or even third language. Indeed, an employee survey specialist would argue that, as technology has made the world a smaller place, employers actively demand language skills in order to negotiate it. Fifty years ago, a company may have extended its businesses out to Europe; today the world is open to all. Parents of young children are starting to appreciate that fact, and the rise of foreign language toddler groups is testament to that realisation. But, speaking a foreign language is not just about communication.
By speaking someone’s language, we connect with that person in a particular way. We can only truly appreciate another’s culture by conversing in their tongue. Language is so closely bound with identity that we cannot hope to truly understand a person unless we appreciate their language. As Nelson Mandela said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
My English is different from yours
Identity touches on who we are and where we came from, and the same is true of language. We use words our parents and grandparents taught us. We link to our past by remembering the rhymes in the playground, and we take pride in the nuances of our own, individual language. Even if two people speak the same language, one, personal version, will differ slightly from another. Dialect and accent enrich an individual’s language and make it unique.
Some languages are in danger of dying out and there are debates, periodically, about whether to save them and the best way to do that. Languages are constantly evolving and developing, and there is an argument to say that, if a language is dying, then it’s a form of evolution and should be left alone. Perhaps it’s a case of survival of the fittest?
In a modern age where texting and tweeting are becoming more commonplace, a new language is emerging. Today’s younger generations (and some silver surfers) have carved out their own means of communication. Their language has evolved and adapted to suit the technology that’s come along. As some languages die, perhaps others are waiting in the wings?
Learning a foreign language is essential. It even boosts brainpower (apparently). Perhaps it’s time to blow the dust off that old French vocab book, or sign up for an evening class? I’m not sure I could conjugate a verb, but I could drop an email to my old pen pal. Or a letter, if I could find the pen of my aunt…
Heather Foley is a consultant at ETS and a lover of all things Spanish.